February 28, 2005

The Lure of the Site Meter

I signed up for a site meter the other day, giving in to external and internal pressures, and I’ve looked at it once. It didn’t hold any surprises—the numbers were about what I would have predicted—but I’m going to try not to consult it too often. As soon as I looked at it, a bug started working in me, spiraling through my brain—the bug of, “How can I increase my numbers?”

Almost simultaneously, I lost any inclination to write stories, the work I had started this blog to do.

I’ve observed that any time I write a fictional story, it gets less response—fewer comments, fewer links—than if I write a topical piece. That’s natural and I don’t mind it. Fewer people are interested in fiction than in the news, and probably rightly so. Left on my own, I can ignore that and keep doing my internal work. But that darn site meter magnifies the emotional impact. Got to get that graph higher! How can I raise my plateau?

When I write a story, it seems to come from a different place inside me than a topical piece. I feel as if I’m using a different part of my brain, almost a different personality, a personality that only shows up in states of deep contemplation and silence. To me, when I write a story that comes from within—especially in the conception stage rather than the stage or writing words down and polishing them up—it feels like my brain is putting out a lot of theta waves, the slow, serious waves of trance. When I’m writing something in response to an external source—a news story, a freelance commission—it feels like I’m putting out mostly beta waves, the cheerful, brisk waves of conscious work. (I have no idea whether any of this is physiologically true, of course—I’m putting these forward as metaphors.)

When the site meter rides into town on its cloud of dust, the internal artist scurries away into a back room.

To complicate things, I’m not convinced that my own approach to art, the inner–directed approach, is really best for me. I’ve practiced this approach over many years and I’m used to it, but perhaps it’s become too much of a comfortable retreat. Great work can be done from inner promptings, but looking at the history of art and literature I’d bet that as much great work has come from responses to the outside world. And I’m no Dostoevsky or Kafka or Blake, no Van Gogh who, going down into his own depths, brings up gifts to enrich the whole world. I’m more like a proficient Dutch genre painter or Persian miniaturist who can give you something skillful and smart and appealing at will. Maybe my method is ill–matched to my gifts. There’s treasure deep within oneself, but also out there in the world.

Best of all, of course, would be for one’s inner artist to be fully available at all times, primed to show itself gloriously in response to any outer call. Mozart was that. Shakespeare was that. Could their kind of receptive aptitude be cultivated on a lower level of talent?

Here’s where my big hope lies: this new medium in which I’ve been working for three months allows me to do whatever I want from day to day. If I want to write a topical piece tomorrow, I will. If a story happens to bubble up from within, that’s great. (Thankfully I haven’t made a vow to write a story every day like the brave Matt and Josh of Dancing on Fly Ash!) It’s the perfect medium for a waffler, an overanalyzer, a person who loves to find sixteen reasons for every phenomenon and needs to balance every impulse with an equal and opposite impulse.

As for the site meter, I’ll probably look at it once in a while, like a tightrope walker checking his feet. But not so often that I might fall.

February 27, 2005

The Reviewer's Dilemma

One of the toniest publications has asked him to review the new book by a writer who is subtly but definitely more well–established than he is. His style is indistinguishable from the author’s except that they write about different continents; therefore he is considered the perfect choice of reviewer. Eagerly he opens the shipping envelope and begins reading, but twenty pages later his excitement has turned to alarm. He calls his writer friends on the phone: “I don’t like it. What am I supposed to do?”

Giving a bad review is inconceivable. If he did that, the author would surely be chosen to review a book of his someday, and would pan him in turn. And of course the author would never vote for him for a grant, prize, or fellowship, or invite him to a symposium, or accept his work for the journal he edits.

No one has any advice. It would seem from the reactions that the situation is unprecedented.

So the reviewer painfully sits down to finish the book and to struggle heroically with the most difficult of reviewing arts: the art of writing an ostensibly flattering review that winks at the knowing reader, while containing all the necessary laudatory quotes for the ads.

It doesn’t even matter if the book’s author sees through it. He’ll return the favor someday.

February 26, 2005

Contemporary Questions, Chapter 5

Do you love me just because I'm a node?

Contemporary Questions, Chapter 4

Can we eat dinner at home tonight for a change?


Do we have to eat at home tonight? We already did that this morning.

The Moderation Fad

Young viewers sipping decaf sit glued to the golf channel for hours, applauding discreetly when their favorites make par. Video gamers, playing the roles of middle–class characters, enact the subtleties of interpersonal relationships.* The latest college style: tweeds, button–down oxford shirts, and a clean shave. For the girls, dresses just below the knee and low–heeled shoes. In movie trailers there’s not an explosion to be seen, but instead close-ups of beautiful faces in the grip of anguish or longing. In restaurants and stores, no music loud enough to interfere with civilized conversation. In sports stadiums, soundless scoreboards offer no video replays, no thunderous music, no dazzling slogans, and no between–play stunts or contests.
I so extremely want that.

* This already exists in the game Sims.

February 25, 2005

Exasperating People

People who shut off the radio in the midst of a beautiful musical phrase.

Because she is female and you are male, she assumes it is her sacred mission to tutor you in all matters of behavior, feeling, and thought.

People who are inordinately proud of their ringtones.

The guy who spreads his gym bag and clothing all over the bench in front of my locker.

The bumper sticker that boasts of the glory of the owner’s Zip code.

People who announce their whereabouts at every step to unseen listeners in their earphones: “I’m in the produce section… Cucumbers are only two for a dollar, you think I should get one, or two?” (This is really too commonplace to list at this point.)

Guests who break flush handles whose mode of operation should be readily apparent to any resident of a developed nation. And ones who do not use the bathroom fan because in their case it is not necessary.

People who obey their grammar check when it’s wrong. Like here, my grammar check would have me write, “People that obey their grammar check when it’s wrong.” And so a generation is arising of people who write “People that” instead of “People who.” Or is “that” more appropriate for people today?

Human beings who were responsible for creating a grammar check used by millions of human beings, but who couldn’t be bothered to program a relative pronoun to refer to human beings.

We want to buy a rug, but we can’t until she’s looked at EVERY RUG IN THE UNIVERSE.

People who want to kill me because I blog them as “Exasperating People”…

February 24, 2005

Austin Notes: Color Blindness

In an Austin elementary school known for its diversity, a second–grade class was learning about Texas’ segregationist past. Their textbook taught them a slogan segregationists used to chant: “Two four six eight/ We don’t want to integrate.”

At recess, the teacher found a group of her girls chanting that slogan on the playground. A beautifully mixed bagful of kids—white, black, brown, yellow—clapping hands and chanting together loudly and happily, just because it was such a fun rhyme.

The teacher rushed over and questioned the kids. They knew what the slogan meant, sort of—they understood the history lesson—but they just didn’t connect it to anything in their lives. For all they knew, they might as well have been chanting some slogan from the War of the Roses.

Feverishly the teacher enlisted them in trying to think of a substitute last word for the chant. “Two four six eight/ We don’t want to segregate” was the obvious one, but for some reason the kids just didn’t like it as much, maybe because the teacher did. Okay, well, how about “Two four six eight/ Second grade is really great?” No. They weren’t sure whether second grade really was great or not. Then the kids themselves came up with a replacement: “Two four six eight/ Miss Zapata’s really great” (not her real name). So at last they could keep merrily chanting.

I heard the teacher tell this blushingly to another teacher and a parent.

February 23, 2005

A Different Drummer

Althouse has been giving some heat to, and taking some back from, some media pundit named Kevin Drum, who thinks that blogging is a man’s sport and women are too soft for its competitive back-and-forth opinion-mongering. (See her post “Women and Blogging, re-Drummed,” Feb, 23, 9:10 am.) This valiant upholder of machismo says:

“…men are more comfortable with the food fight nature of opinion writing — both writing it and reading it. Since I don't wish to suffer the fate of Larry Summers I'll refrain from speculating on deep causes — it might be social, cultural, genetic, or Martian mind rays for all I know — but I imagine that the fundamental viciousness and self aggrandizement inherent in opinion writing turns off a lot of women.”

This Drumette character and people like him remind me of gorillas beating their chests inside their cages, or more literally, of guys I wouldn't want to sit around and watch a ballgame with. In terms of emotional age, the playground is where these guys belong. I don't read his blog or others like it; I don't watch point-counterpoint-style TV pundit programs; I'm tired of that whole attitude.

I see nothing fundamentally vicious about the blog medium or about political or intellectual discourse in general. The vicious see viciousness wherever they look. Attacking people from a position of invisibility and anonymity is cowardly, and unfortunately there are many people -- apparently mostly men -- who confuse cowardly aggression with masculine strength.

As a new blogger, I welcome the chance to use this medium to express attitudes of generosity, openmindedness, inclusiveness, and fairness, and to use reasoned rather than ad hominen rhetoric. I find these to a great extent in Ann’s blog, although we have many political differences. It puts a bad taste in my mouth even to be driven to write this nasty passage about Drum. I can do that just as well as anyone, but I usually choose not to.

PS: I think it’s Martian mind rays.

Sale on Anti–Aging Supplements

Desperate women cram the counter, elbowing, shoving, kicking shins. A simpering earringed youth pleads through a handheld mike: “Ladies, three to a customer!”

Wait, stop, rewind! I refuse to indulge any longer in this cheap sexist and homophobic humor. Let’s try this:

Hesitantly, admiringly, the forty-five-year-old man approaches the woman of his own age, whose natural glow proudly shows the lines that come only with the constant exercise of wisdom and empathy. “I see you’re reading THE HOURS,” he murmurs. “Don’t you agree that the film couldn’t capture the novel’s tone?”

Cut! Julianne Moore isn’t available and Annette Bening doesn’t need the money. But wait, what’s happening? The scene shimmers and dissolves—where am I?

With a lurching suddenness I dimly—for I am not wearing my glasses—recognize the surroundings. We’re looking at old photo albums from before she met me.

“You were handsome,” she says, conceivably intending a compliment.

Were? WERE?

I’ll take three jars!

February 22, 2005

What If the Characters Wrote the Stories?

What if Anna Karenina and not Tolstoy had written ANNA KARENINA? What if Clarissa Dalloway and not Virginia Woolf had written MRS. DALLOWAY?

That’s what we have now in the age of blogs and podcasts, reality TV and noncelebrity memoirs. Every reader can now simultaneously be author and character. Do we need a new CATCHER IN THE RYE when The Real World…Blogger Style is updated daily by a dozen author/characters?

This, I think, is a massive and democratic shift in the sociology of the arts—a revolution of the masses, after millennia of serving as models for aristocrats’ sketches.

What will be the effect on literature? Well, to put it selfishly, it’s probably hurt my career, as someone who specializes in imagining lives more eventful than my own. I’m a writer, not a character. The novelist and short story writer may be going the way of the cooper and the wainwright.

More broadly, I suspect that the net effect will be a gain in immediacy and verisimilitude and a loss in depth. The best interpreter of an experience isn’t necessarily the one experiencing it.

This seems to me to be an Americanization of the arts, going along with the Americanization of the whole world. It’s somehow related, too, to the American–led shift from print to screen which began with the first talkies in the late 1920s. A widening of access, a democratizing of taste and of subject matter, a waning of the cultivated mind.

February 21, 2005

The Personality Vampire

You can see him in the bars any night, buying drinks for the most attractive person in the room. He knows what to say to get invited home. It’s an instinct, a tropism like plants turning toward the sun.

He likes to go to their places rather than bringing them to his. That way, there’s more for him to devour. More about who they are and how they live. The photos on a refrigerator door can sustain him for days.

All his partners tell him how good he is at lovemaking, but he hardly feels anything when he’s doing it. He doesn’t suck their blood, doesn’t kill or beat them, doesn’t really want their flesh at all. What he feasts on is their personalities.

What he craves is what he’s missing. Craves it without understanding what it is.

February 20, 2005

Reading Log: Robert Henri

American painter (1865-1929), a leading member of the Ashcan School , the anti-academic movement of the early 1900s, and a founder of the 1913 Armory Show which brought modern European painting to America. His paintings still hang in major museums, but his greatest contribution was as an art teacher of unique charisma and depth, the star instructor of the Art Students League when it was the leading producer of American artists. His students included Edward Hopper and George Bellows.

Henri’s teachings are preserved in a paperback book, THE ART SPIRIT, containing almost 300 pages of his miscellaneous observations, gathered from his in–class comments and from letters he wrote critiquing his students’ work. Much of it concerns painting technique, but for a nonpainter like myself, even that material is interesting because of the nostalgic light it throws on a time when art school meant life drawing classes and getting the folds of the drapery right. And even on technical topics, Henri’s observations open up larger realms:

“Furniture and clothes are the escape of the bad artist… Think, what do you have to *say* about that red dress and white collar?… Paint even the rungs of the model’s chair so a poem could be written about them.”

And often he goes directly to the issue itself:

“Be yourself today, don’t wait till tomorrow.”

“The only true modern movement is a frank expression of self.”

“Art is the giving by each man of his evidence to the world. Those who wish to give, love to give, discover the pleasure of giving. Those who give are tremendously strong.”

“To be free, to be happy, to be fruitful, can only be accomplished by the sacrifice of many common but overestimated things.”

“I do not want to see how skillful you are—I am not interested in your skill…Why do you paint this subject? What is life to you? What reasons and principles have you found?…What excitement, what pleasure do you get from it?”

Always he is reminding us that to learn to make art you must learn to be an artist, and to learn to be an artist you must learn to be a living human being. And if you are a fully alive human being and don’t become an artist, that’s a creative achievement of the highest kind.

On my bookshelf THE ART SPIRIT has a permanent place right beside Joanna Field’s ON NOT BEING ABLE TO PAINT. The 1984 edition is still in print and has a surprisingly high amazon sales rank (#8,058) with 13 five-star reviews.

New Blog: Luz

In ZEN MIND, BEGINNER’S MIND, Shunryu Suzuki says, “This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner.” One of my dearest friends in the world, a Chicago minimalist painter who goes by the blognomen of lhombre, is taking Suzuki up on it by starting a poetry blog, entitled LUZ, as a complete neophyte in the midst of a long and successful career as a visual artist. Lhombre would be the first to say that from the technical standpoint his poems are rough. But a gift for imagery, especially imagery of light and air and liquid and color, comes strongly through in his poems, and his figures of speech are often original and enhanced by synesthesia (mixing of the senses). The poems are interspersed among prose discussions on art, the nature of creativity, the sources of inspiration, and related matters, to which lhombre invites discussants. Perhaps what’s most refreshing is the experience of meeting an artist of this caliber who is so willing to become a student again and to learn from everyone regardless of worldly prestige—who seeks out the genuine, wherever he finds it, whoever has made it. He doesn’t mind seeming like a complete novice in poetry because, he claims, he started out from the same position as a painter. That is the real art spirit.

February 19, 2005

Finding Josh's Stories

Those of you who are new readers of one of my favorite blogs, Dancing on Fly Ash, may be having trouble finding Josh Maday's stories on it. His are supposed to be in the right-hand column, with Matt Bell's on the left. But most computers, including mine, don't show both columns side by side, so Josh's stories end up being at the bottom half of the site.

Please scroll down past the end of Matt's stories and you'll find Josh's. These two young writers, both from Hemlock, MI, share talent, dedication, and aspects of working in the same genre, but are distinct individuals with their own styles and visions.


"Never mind" -- This problem has now been solved by Matt, and both writers' stories are in side by side columns.

Modern Types, Part 8

He worked his way up from retail sales to upper–middle management, but now he labors by choice as a gardener in a plant nursery, tending the herbs and roses, handing cuttings to customers like sacred vessels. The happiest moments in his life have come while transplanting seedlings, cradling their root balls in his cupped palms, tenderly patting the soil around them, slowly pouring just the right amount of water. He’s a good decade older than any of his co–workers, and though he’s told them he’s willing to work the cash register if needed, they’ve gotten the message not to ask unless it’s urgent. When a customer asks a question, though, he can stand there answering with his elbow on a rake for half an hour. On days off he takes side jobs, planting, weeding, pruning, for a ridiculously low fee. They don’t know he would pay them for the chance to do it.

Modern Types, Part 7

The only thing that stuck from that seminar on Communicating with Our Japanese Clients was that it is rude ever to utter a direct No. No must always be phrased as some variation of Yes.

A friend asks, “I’m thinking about quitting my job, selling my house, and spending all my savings to learn how to be a trapeze artist.”

“Great, yeah, I mean, you ought to go online, see if there’s anything by anyone else who did it, see whether they enjoyed it or whatever.”

English as a Foreign Language

Every time he uttered a sentence he had to form it in advance. Not only to make sure it was grammatically correct, but to rehearse it in his mind so that he wouldn’t stumble over any words.

He spoke his native tongue as if he were visiting a foreign land, constantly fearing that his hosts would laugh at him for some innocent mistake.

February 18, 2005

Austin Notes: Sidewalks of Liberty

My neighborhood was considered a suburb a century ago, but it’s long been absorbed into central Austin, a mixture of single–family homes, two–families, and low–rise rentals a mile or two from downtown. One thing newcomers—and even oldtimers—think is bizarre about it is the patchwork sidewalks. At this distance from the business district, the city laid down sidewalks only on the main streets, and often only on one side of the street. On side streets, installing pavement is the responsibility of the individual property owner. So you’ll rarely find a block that’s paved along its whole length. Often you’ll find sidewalk in front of one house and no sidewalk in front of its neighbor. Sometimes you’ll find sidewalk in front of three or four houses in a row, and then it stops, like a road under construction. I imagine the homeowners meeting and deciding to spring for the pavement, but one house holding out. Most of the sidewalks are the standard cement kind, but you’ll also find cobble, brick, flagstone, and steppingstone–in–a–stream cinderblocks.

This is the purest manifestation I know of the dream of the single–family home as castle. Each house trying to realize its vision of earthly paradise—for one family a clean–swept suburb, for the family next door a rustic unpaved retreat—and for the most part not complaining to the neighbors.

That makes it vastly different from—to pick an example wildly at random—Madison, Wisconsin, where your neighbors will rat you out to the cops for not shoveling your sidewalk to the width mandated by ordinance. Madison is progressive but not libertarian. Austin is both.

February 17, 2005

The Hundredth Day

I said, “Mom, tomorrow’s the hundredth day of school, we’re supposed to bring in a hundred something. Like a hundred jelly beans, a hundred paper clips…”

She was listening to her messages. She opened her purse and handed me a dollar bill. “Here. It’s worth a hundred pennies.”

“But it has to be something she can hand out to the class.”

She was pushing buttons and cursing. “What do you want from me? Do the other kids’ mothers work as many hours as me? Do the other kids’ mothers have to do everything all alone?”

I can’t do anything when she gets like that. I got a scissors from the kitchen drawer and began to cut the dollar into a hundred pieces.

February 16, 2005

Primitive Precursors of Blogging

Found written in black marker on a utility control box:

“Why doesn’t she love me anymore?”

Underneath it, in silver marker:

“Cuz yur a syko.”

February 15, 2005

Texas Jewish Haiku

In response to a commenter on yesterday’s post “Austin Notes: Spring Is Here,” and in keeping with this season of new life, I joyously announce the birth of a new art form, the Texas Jewish haiku, or “chaiku.”

In the spirit of our local bumper sticker, “Texas: It’s Bigger than France,” I say unto you, “Just try this with French Jewish haiku, bubbie!”

With apologies to those of my readers who are not among the “doubly chosen”—and for that matter, to those of my readers who are.

Dallas yeshiva:
cheerleaders proudly form the
Lone Star of David

Not to seem cheap, he
buys drinks: the man in the ten–
gallon yarmulke

This Kinky Friedman—
he uses the name Friedman

February 14, 2005

Holy Moly: Can This Black Box See Into the Future?

This is the #1 story on today's Blogdex -- and for good reason.

Go here for the homepage of the Global Consciousness Project.

On Bull

Today's NYT contains an article about a new book by Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, entitled ON BULLSHIT. (The Times prints the title with dashes.) The humorous but serious little volume says:

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bull. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bull and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.… Even the most basic and prelimninary questions about bull remain, after all, not only unanswered but unasked."

Frankfurt decides that unlike a lie, which denies truth but still takes the possibility of truth seriously, bullshit takes no account of the possible existence of truth. This is more dangerous than an old-fashioned lie, because a society in which bull prevails is one that rejects "the possibility of knowing how things truly are."

"It follows," Times writer Peter Edidin paraphrases, "that any form of political argument or intellectual analysis or commercial appeal is only as legitimate, and true, as it is persuasive. There is no other court of appeal.… the reader is left to imagine a culture in which institutions, leaders, events, ethics feel improvised and lacking in substance."

Sound like any culture we know?

Frankfurt identifies what we call bull with what Socrates called sophistry or rhetoric. Socrates considered this the great enemy of philosophy. One of its dangers, Frankfurt says, is that for still unknown reasons we tend to laugh off bull, treating it as "sort of cuddly and warm…outside the realm of serious criticism." In contrast, a discovered lie is considered an act of serious betrayal.

"I used the title I did," Frankfurt says, "because I wanted to talk about bull without any bull, so I didn't use 'humbug' or 'bunkum.'" Same here.

It seems to me that the fact that "each of us contributes his share" must be at the heart of why we are so tolerant of bull. When everyone is trying to sell something, every must collude in pretending to buy.

Also, in the past generation the media have spread an attitude of kneejerk irony toward just about everything in our civilization, perhaps because it's safer and more entertaining than serious criticism. Irony is a stance of fake acceptance. That's the attitude we as a culture have come to take toward all the bull we're on the receiving end of. And we're on the receiving end of so much, perhaps irony seems like the only kind of rebellion we can afford, the only one that stands a chance against the leviathan. Postmodernism in academia must come in for its share of the blame, too. When you're taught that nothing is objectively true and all evaluations are a matter of personal interpretation, how can you even recognize, much less oppose, bullshit?

Austin Notes: Spring Is Here

Forget Valentine’s Day. Forget Groundhog Day. Mid–February is the traditional unofficial beginning of spring in these parts. We’ve endured almost a month of gray skies, our annual total of eleven hours of subfreezing temperatures, our chance to wear wool sweaters, leather jackets, and corduroy pants. Now it’s time for a remission of our dues.

Saturday we had a soft fragrant rain and Sunday was perfection, breezing in the seventies. (I’m sitting on the lawn in bare feet as I type this.) We drove to the Bull Creek Preserve to commune with the restorative forces of nature. One un–Texan lapse in hospitality greeted us at the parking lot—a signed declaring it a crime–free zone patrolled by undercover police who would arrest us and make our names public for any violation—justified by puddles of crushed blue auto glass on the ground.

The trail followed the top of a flat cliff above Bull Creek. The creek was rushing loud with winter rain, and three people stood in the top of the waterfall with their pants rolled up. At the bottom, kids were wading and dogs—invariably black Labradors—were splashing. Lots of happy yapping, but no audio speakers, no cursing, no quarrels. We crossed a path of steppingstones in the shallows. My foot slipped and got soaked through the sock, but it was dry again in half an hour.

We climbed the trail into the gated community of the golden–cheeked warbler—two weeks before nesting season so none of the birds were actually there, but the tradeoff was that no permit was required. “Hike only in groups of three or less,” said a sign on the warblers’ behalf. Daring arrest, our family of four opened the fence and walked in.

Uphill into the domain of river–carved limestone ledges, pebbly tan soil, dried clump grass, mountain laurel, juniper cedar. “Be Alert for Feral Hogs,” a sign warned, in the middle of a city of almost 700,000—and we were nowhere near the football stadium!

Somewhere the first bluebonnets are popping up. In a couple of weeks they’ll be carpeting the roadsides. Time to think about using the air conditioner!

February 13, 2005

The Secret Blogger

As Terry and his friends came closer to graduation and the workforce or grad school, they started blogs so they could keep the endless bull session going wherever they ended up. Friends told other friends, so their clique expanded online, though few of them saw each other face to face anymore. They wrote the things they wanted the others to know, and they kept other things secret.

Then Terry decided that he wanted more: he wanted to go deeper, to write the secret things as well. So he started another blog, a secret blog. On it, he wrote all the things he didn’t let tell his friends. He registered his new blog on various metasites and sent it off into the ether.

He had no readers at first, but little by little people stumbled upon the site, sometimes when randomly searching, other times when phrases he had written turned up on search engine results. He put so much intimate stuff on the site, word spread fast about this unknown person who was laying everything bare at a certain URL. He became a celebrity within a faceless world. It was all there for anyone to read, and yet he felt protected, anonymous.

Exploring his deepest secrets, Terry had come upon one that shocked him: he was in love with Tina, one of his college girl–pals, one of the original clique. He didn’t just like her, the way he’d always thought. Of course he’d always lusted for her a little, but he’d never minded that she was out of reach. Now he lusted for her a lot. More than that, he kept picturing them together doing sentimental things. They were walking along a beach, holding hands and watching their footprints appear side by side. They were leaning over a dinner table, smiling in the candlelight and sharing murmured confidences. They were getting married and having kids and living together for the rest of their lives. Terry had never imagined that kind of thing before. He imagined it nonstop now. And he put it all on his secret blog.

Inevitably a friend of a friend stumbled upon the site and told the friend, and the friend read the site and began wondering. Terry had changed the names, but the details were all familiar. Once you started considering the possibility, in fact, it all became transparent, undeniable: yes, the blogger was Terry and his love was Tina. Soon all the friends were reading the secret blog several times a day.

No one told Terry they knew about his secret site. They never mentioned it on their public blogs. But they all phoned and emailed obsessively about this great local soap opera. What should Terry do about his love for Tina? Was it true love or was he crazy? Should they tell him to confess his love to her? Should they scold him and tell him to leave her alone?

Most of all, should they tell Tina? No, they decided. Too distressing for her. Too embarrassing for all.

The situation stood that way for months, and then Tina herself stumbled upon the secret blog when she was clicking links on a friend’s blogroll. She saw Terry’s declarations of love and wondered, “Who is this passionate guy, and who is he in love with?” She read on, and recognized herself.

She was horrified. But it was compelling reading.

She became one of the audience who hung onto Terry’s secret blog every day, but she was his special reader, the one it was all for.

She didn’t know what to do. She yearned to ask her friends, but it would be agony to bring up the subject. And after reading his secrets, she couldn’t bring herself to betray Terry. She didn’t know that the whole clique already read the secret blog and gossiped constantly about her and Terry. Can one person be drawn toward another because of gossip about them that neither is aware of?

Over the weeks, seeing Terry’s sensitivity and earnestness and eloquence, and knowing how fervently she was loved, she began to love him in return. She too began to imagine whispered laughing confidences over candlelight, and footprints side by side on wet sand, and a wedding with both families weeping with joy, and a house with kids in it.

But how to tell him? She couldn’t just appear as a commenter on his secret blog one day and declare his love requited. She couldn’t stand the thought of all those invisible people reading it, breathing over her shoulder. Call him on the phone? She’d never been very good at talking to boys on the phone. Invite him for a drink and starting talking about anything at all and see whether the subject came up, whether their feelings survived in the physical realm? No, she just knew that would wreck it. One of them would say the wrong thing or make a clumsy gesture and the other would think prematurely, “No, this isn’t the right person after all,” and everything would fall to pieces even though, from a broader view, they really were right for each other.

There was only one thing to do. Tina started her own secret blog. There she wrote about her love for Terry. She changed his name and kept herself anonymous. And without telling anyone about it, she waited.

February 12, 2005

Contemporary Questions,Chapter 3

What size should I make my Create–a–Size paper towel?

Should I buy new equipment to listen to the same music?

Do I have to see it just because it’s a must–see?

The piece of mail says IMPORTANT—DATED MATERIAL—PLEASE DO NOT DISCARD. It’s presorted and has nine cents postage and no return address. What do you say—throw it out unopened?

February 11, 2005

Actors at their Craft

The glamorous fortyish actress is playing the role of a worn, haggard small–town housewife, cheated and shortchanged by life. One can well believe that in real life this woman looks worn and haggard and feels cheated and shortchanged, but on the screen all that comes through is her glamorous condescension.

On the other hand, her sixtyish leading man, a drunken brute in real life, convincingly pulls off the role of a drunken brute.

The difference being that the old man is beyond vanity—at least beyond certain kinds of vanity.

Triumphant Return

Eighteen, twenty years ago he interviewed her for the local paper. She was the homegrown actress moving to New York to seek stardom; he was trying out for a regular slot on the arts page.

Now he gets an email from her: “Do you remember me…?” She has the second lead in the touring company of a musical comedy revival that’s coming through town. It’s the biggest break she’s had in a while. As for him, he drifted away from journalism long ago. It’s funny to think that he used to make his living asking intrusive questions of people in distress.

It’s embarrassing how well they recall that interview, though. Where were all the countless interviews that were supposed to have happened in intervening years, to swamp the memory in accolades?

He goes to the show, and visits backstage afterwards with roses. She takes them, looks around for a vase—and there’s no underling to give them to, what is this place anyway? It’s the perfect moment for a snub, a remote “Thank you” that will remind him he’s just another fan, he no longer has the power to give her anything she wants—but she hesitates, and looks at the roses and the man, and something shifts inside her.

“So tell me about teaching,” she says. “What made you go into it?”

And something begins that is better than an interview.

February 10, 2005

Holden Caulfield on Bloggers

“…everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques. The guys that are on the basketball team stick together, the Catholics stick together, the goddam intellectuals stick together, the guys that play bridge stick together. Even the guys that belong to the goddam Book-of-the-Month Club stick together.”

Sounds like us, doesn’t it? I haven’t checked out the bridge blogs, but I’m sure they exist, as do basketball blogs, Catholic blogs, book readers’ blogs, and every conceivable subspecies of intellectual blogs. Personally I’m thrilled to have found an online clique of my own to hang out with in the two months I’ve been doing this.

That’s natural to an extent, of course, but I worry that blogs tend to echo and amplify—and thus rigidify—the views of the participants, because they spend so much time communicating only with those who belong to their own group. Conservatives read conservative blogs and liberals read liberal blogs. For the most part they acknowledge each other only to rail and nitpick at each other. It’s a vast international point-counterpoint session with thousands of blogging heads screaming invective back and forth. When are minds changed? When are middle ways found? When does rhetoric give way to genuine reason?

Chance has favored me in trying to provide a contrast: I got my blogging start with the help of people who were politically to the right of me, so I’ve encountered a lot of conservative opinions that I otherwise wouldn’t have listened to, and in most cases I’ve come to respect the intelligence and integrity of the people voicing those opinions. I keep reading Christian blogs though I’m not a Christian, and conservative blogs though I’m not a conservative, because each time I do, I can feel my mind broadening as I encounter ideas, and even whole fields of study, I haven’t before. I tend not to check the liberal blogs as frequently, because there I encounter things I already think and most of the people around me already think. I don’t need, as so many people today seem to, to constantly have my views confirmed. Nor do I have any desire to go around in a constant state of outrage at the views of those who disagree with me.

I keep thinking of Les Barker's line in his comedy routine “The Church of the Undecided” (on his new album THE WAR ON TERRIER). In the voice of a TV evangelist, he declaims, “Brothers and sisters, I want to hear you say, ‘The infidel just may have a point.’”

That’s the church I belong to. (Or at least I think I do—I’m not sure.)

Another blogger who’s apparently concerned about the narrowness of many bloggers’ spectra, or spectrums for that matter, is my former jousting opponent and all–around ex, Ann Althouse, who has an excellent post on the topic, with readers’ contributions, dated Tuesday, Feb. 8. (For some reason whenever I try to link to a specific post of hers, rather than her whole blog, the link disappears.)

February 09, 2005

What Would You Like to Be the #1 Google Result For?

Ann Althouse reports that when she did a goggle search for "I just wrecked my car," her own blog post came up as the #1 result.That's a distinction I'll gladly concede to my esteemed erstwhile partner, but it got me wondering,what would *I* like to be the #1 google result for? "I just signed a big book deal," of course -- but it's taken me forever to come to terms with the fact that that will probably not happen. I wouldn't want all that hard psychic work to go for nothing, would I?

Nowadays I'd settle for "My blog is getting a really good response."

The Two Biggest Words

Imagine that you were raised in a world where there were no ideas of success and failure. Who would you be? What would you be doing?

February 08, 2005

The Birthmark

She was born with a large splotch on one side of her face, and she never forgot it for an second. Every moment of her life that seemed glad or carefree was really a tense effort to pretend she’d forgotten the birthmark.

She hated the sight of herself in a mirror. When she met another person, she averted that side of her face, looking at the person through the corner of one eye.

Year by year the splotch diminished, but so slowly she didn’t notice. Only once a decade or so, someone who’d known her most of her life would remark, “It’s getting smaller, isn’t it?” But it was too late for her to believe it.

When she was very old and in a nursing home, she was complaining one day to a dinner tablemate about how lonely her life had been, how empty of love, empty even of the common losses that give other lives their shapes.

“And all because of this goddamn birthmark.”

The other lady leaned forward and squinted at her face. “What, you mean that beauty spot?”

Contemporary Questions, Chapter 2

What are you like in the real world?

February 07, 2005

Reading Log: Joanna Field

Does the right of self–expression need to be earned? British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton thinks (via Good and Happy) that self–expression is only worthwhile if one has “gone through a rigorous process of discipline and order and self-understanding of a kind that, for instance, Milton went through. Self-expression that hasn't done that is just embarrassing.” This leaves those of us who aren’t as gifted as Milton abashed and at a loss.

One twentieth–century self who surely earned the right of expression even under the most stringent Scrutony was British psychoanalyst Marion Milner. Using the pen name Joanna Field she wrote three explorative, soul–baring books about her struggle to become a free, creative human being. (Under her own name she studied children and did fieldwork on the learning process in schools.) These books are ancestors of today’s pop self–therapy books: they’re more demanding, less programmatic, and more idiosyncratic. They give off the flavor of a real person's ambiguous battle, not of a shrewd marketable triumph.

The first, A LIFE OF ONE’S OWN, is a report on her experiment in discovering what she really thought and felt and liked, as opposed to what others wanted her to think and feel and like; and to derive values that were her own, not automatically inherited from her culture. She pursued this project when she and the century were both in their twenties.

The sequel, AN EXPERIMENT IN LEISURE, describes her attempt to find out what she would do if her time were her own. What really made her happy?

Then, in middle age in the late 1940s, she undertook an investigation of creativity. An amateur painter for much of her life, she felt blocked by inhibitions and anxieties and by the felt need to paint the way other people wanted her to, the way other people painted, the way other people had taught her. In the tradition of her first two books, she asked herself how she would paint if she did not heed those external messages but only put down what she felt and genuinely observed. The result was a book I love and have underlined over and over in my own endeavor to become a writer: ON NOT BEING ABLE TO PAINT. (Actually most of the art work she analyzes is her drawing, not painting. But she picked the better title!)

This is one of those rare books on the artist’s creative process that focuses not on the masterpieces of the great but on the trial–and–error fumblings of a more or less talented ordinary person. And because of that, it is all the richer. She is not talking about making perfect paintings; she is talking about creating a fuller life.

Unembarrassed, she reproduces many of her rather amateurish drawings (and goes into too much detail about their technicalities, for my taste). But the core of the book is not in the descriptions of her drawings as such, but her analysis of the emotional content and philosophical implications of the artistic process. Clearly she spent more fruitful time thinking about why she felt dissatisfied drawing one kind of line and pleased about drawing another, than she did actually drawing the lines themselves. She analyzes the “orgiastic” pleasure that can accompany the making of art, and why that pleasure is not a reliable guide to the quality of the finished product. She relates artistic inhibitions to the fear of losing one’s separateness from the world. She comes to understand the necessity of what we today call “down time,” daydreaming, absentmindedness. Perhaps most importantly, she discourses on how losing our inhibitions about creativity enables us—artist or not—to make ourselves into beings who are truly alive, and to transfigure the worlds in which we live.

This is not a how–to book, but it can help anyone who is trying to create—to create anything, from a building to a math theorem to a saxophone solo. It is not part of the inspirational genre, but it may very well inspire you. Many of its broadest ideas may be available in simplified form in the emotional pabulum put out by creativity entrepreneurs like Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg. But Joanna Field does not spoon pabulum into you. Her books must be reread to be fully grasped. Her discussion may be too psychoanalytical for some readers today, but it is not doctrinaire, just deep. A discovery of Joanna Field might even renew respect for psychoanalysis—not as a scientific theory but as a humane outlook and a bold venture—not an outdated set of dogmas with quaint labels for dubious drives and unverifiable psychic compartments—but a way of entering and uncovering the hidden soul.

The 1957 second edition of ON NOT BEING ABLE TO PAINT was reissued by Jeremy Tarcher in 1983. A LIFE OF ONE’S OWN was reprinted by Tarcher in 1981, and AN EXPERIMENT IN LEISURE in 1987. You can find them by using the amazon search button on the sidebar of this blog.

February 06, 2005

John Paul II

In deep winter he continues his work of suffering, in full view, so that the world can know this aspect of God. On the news, old footage shows him forgiving his would-be assassin, who has now sent him wishes for recovery.

Is it possible that this man of political power, with his stubborn reactionary views and vestigial prejudices, is that rarest and noblest of beings, a true Christian?

Those of us who seek such a creature must accept the contradiction, for the true Christian is not necessarily politically infallible, even from the papal throne.

The complication for us: to hold both in mind at the same time, the reactionary and the saint, and to know that the same being can contain both, and that the decisions we deplore were arrived at through the sincerest calculation of the good. And why not? The same Being encompassed the first spark of life in the ocean billions of years ago, and the killing of every organism ever born since.

(via Althouseon Friday 2/4/05 at 8:01 am, but I’m having trouble transmitting the link to her specific post and an NYT article.)

February 05, 2005

Contemporary Questions

Why doesn't the greeter at the supermarket greet me?

February 04, 2005

Moments of Sanity, Part 1

(Introducing a new series which, for obvious reasons, will probably appear less frequently than “Modern Types.”)

In a certain university department, the recently tenured faculty held a meeting to discuss their new role and how they could help their juniors earn tenure. Those present included a married mother, a divorced mother, and a never–married man.

Someone uttered the observation that the three of them would soon have to concentrate on grinding out more papers and doing more administrative service to get promoted from associate professor to full.

But the divorced mother said, “I’m not going to go up for full professor. I’ve been working hard for forty–two years, and I’m not going to work like that anymore. On my tombstone it’s not going to say ‘Beloved Mother and Associate Professor.’ It’s going to say ‘Beloved Mother and Professor.’ They’re not going to carve the extra word.”

The divorced mother was a rising star in her field, one who had been a cinch for tenure from the moment of hiring and yet had worked harder than anyone to ensure—largely for her children’s sake—that she got it. She would doubtless be as serious in her renunciation of ambition as she had been in her pursuit of it—yet her quality was such that she would almost certainly be promoted just by staying around.

At her announcement, the never–married man rolled his eyes. But tears of gratitude came to the eyes of the married mother, and she thanked her colleague for inspiring her, too, to slave less.

February 03, 2005

The Tragedy of No Tragedy

Hamlet is going through a personal renaissance on Wellbutrin. The reconciliation between him and his uncle had everyone in tears. He and Ophelia laugh about the little spats they have over the details of their wedding plans. With her support, he’s finally returning to school to complete his philosophy degree. His family connections should get him a job as a marketing ethicist with one of the best firms in London.

Lear is as comfortable as can be expected in assisted living. Goneril and Regan chip in to get him the best care money can buy. He complains they don’t visit enough, but that’s the way old people are. You should see, he’s even learning how to use a computer. He loves this one game where you have to fight your way past all kinds of villains before you can enter the castle and get crowned king. Cordelia? Happily married to a filthy–rich French guy. Her kids are all completely bilingual. She sends pictures, keeps in touch by email.

Othello is the most popular guy in his anger management group. A natural leader, he helps the other guys with their problems and it helps him work on his own. Desdemona says that once he finishes the course, she’ll consider lifting the restraining order. That Iago guy keeps getting transferred from base to base—the less said about him, the better.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth hold hands each morning while saying their daily affirmations. “It’s okay to be a general, I don’t have to be king.” “I am complete in myself, I don’t need to live through my husband.” They’ve developed their own consumer tool, the Macbeth Blessing, to help other couples. They’re always traveling, recording CDs and writing workbooks, appearing on TV and radio. People who’ve attended their intensive seminar say, “It’s the most life–changing, dramatic two hours you’ll ever spend.”

February 02, 2005

Exasperating Drivers, Part 2

A car with a fish ornament cuts in front of me so close that I have to brake. How did he know I was Jewish?

The car that can’t pass a bicycle.

She does the right thing at rush hour by stopping at the crosswalk, leaving the intersection clear for cars on the cross street. Then the guy behind her honks his horn impatiently, so she moves forward into the intersection, causing gridlock.

He comes up behind me so fast I’m startled to hear his horn less than a car’s length behind me. He’s outraged at my signaled turn, it impedes his progress.

I stop at the corner for a red light and inch up a little to see whether traffic is clear so I can make a right turn. The guy on my left noses up more than I do—is he purposely trying to block my view, or is it just that he can’t stand anyone being ahead of him?

Another driver and I arrive at the four–way stop simultaneously, at right angles to each other. He’s so eager to beat me, he surges forward—and has to stop short to avoid killing the pedestrian whom he didn’t notice in the crosswalk.

It is possible, as some have speculated, that my driving may at rare moments exasperate others, but they just don’t recognize skill when they see it.

February 01, 2005

Modern Types, Part 6

Readers by the hundreds of thousands rely on her advice, laugh at her quips, repeat her gossip, but she is not a human being, she’s just a website with a brainstormed name. Her credits list a publisher, an editor, a creative director, a webmaster, a graphic artist, a publicist, a merchandising executive, three advertising executives—everything you can think of except a writer. The team is currently meeting to decide who will go on her book tour. A cartoon series is in development.

Reading her site, one thinks, “If only I had so many gifted, hard–working people devoting their talents to me, doing their best every day to make me my best.”

Modern Types, Part 5

He encouraged her to stay home and raise the kids. It made him feel like one of the men he’d grown up admiring, one of those guys from his father’s generation, proud to support an entire family through his own work. Six years later she’s become an overweight, sloppy hausfrau who spends all day in the same spit–up–spattered sweatsuit, letting her leg stubble grow for two weeks at a time because no one ever sees it. He winces whenever he hears the slither of her backless slippers approaching. She never has anything interesting to say—it’s all pediatrician’s appointments and kids’ clothing sales—but she’s always calling him at the office wanting to know what to do about the toilet or whether she should make this or the other thing for dinner, as if he were the answer man or something. Why doesn’t she show some initiative? He’s sure he could do a better job of it than she does, if he had to, if for example they got divorced and he had the kids half the time. He’d show her how to run a tight ship!

Lately the counter girl at the bowling alley has been looking good to him. She’s got a vivacious smile, and he once overheard her say that having kids doesn’t matter to her. She’s only fifteen years younger than him, that’s not so much.