July 31, 2012

Our Old Friend Death

From my Project 365

(Let me just say, before I get started:  I’m not depressed at all, I swear!)

Early this morning, I’m taking my mom, who is 88, to get surgery for cataracts.  She’ll have her left eye done today and her right eye done in about a month.

Having surgery scares the dickens out of my mom.  Understandably.  She’s had problems with anesthesia in the past (though she won’t need it for this procedure), and when you’re 88 death is on your mind.

I don’t think she’s alone.  Death is wherever you look.

I was thinking about this as I was looking over my Project 365.  There are pictures of dead birds and dead bugs and other things.  There’s the picture of a gray desiccated leaf in the gutter that screams mortality (see above). 

Why do we exercise?  To look younger.  Why do we want to look younger? To escape death. Why do we eat health food?  A lot of times, it’s because we want to be healthy.  Why do we want to be healthy?  See above.  Why do we watch movies and read books and get high and get drunk and sleep too much? Because it’s right there, staring us in the face. Why do we do dangerous things? Why do we have sex?  Why do we build cities?  Why do we create art?  Why do we walk on the moon? Some would say, it’s all symbolic of our fight against time and death.

We spend inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to run away, to forget the fact.

Why do we have relationships?  Yeah, death, but also because it is the basic human condition to be alone.  We are alone inside our bodies.  We send signals out into the void, hoping to make a connection, but even when we are surrounded by friends, having a great time, assured of our place in the common humanity, we are trapped inside these casings of flesh and bone.  We all die alone.

I was just thinking about why I don’t find this depressing today.  Maybe because I spent a lot of time alone as a child, and I still crave alone time.  And also maybe because I’m surrounded and secure with family and friends.  My needs are met.

Ask me tomorrow.

July 30, 2012

'Girl,' by Jamaica Kincaid

I love how Jamaica Kincaid uses an innovative structure and the rhythms of language in this piece.  I reread it last night and was once again blown away.



Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don’t walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off; when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn’t have gum on it, because that way it won’t hold up well after a wash; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it; is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?; always eat your food in such a way that it won’t turn someone else’s stomach; on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; don’t sing benna in Sunday school; you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions; don’t eat fruits on the street – flies will follow you; but I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school; this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a button-hole for the button you have just sewed on; this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming; this is how you iron your father’s khaki shirt so that it doesn’t have a crease; this is how you iron your father’s khaki pants so that they don’t have a crease; this is how you grow okra – far from the house, because okra tree harbors red ants; when you are growing dasheen, make sure it gets plenty of water or else it makes your throat itch when you are eating it; this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely; this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming; be sure to wash every day, even if it is with your own spit; don’t squat down to play marbles – you are not a boy, you know; don’t pick people’s flowers – you might catch something; don’t throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all; this is how to make a bread pudding; this is how to make doukona; this is how to make pepper pot; this is how to make a good medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child; this is how to catch a fish; this is how to throw back a fish you don’t like, and that way something bad won’t fall on you; this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man; and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel too bad about giving up; this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn’t fall on you; this is how to make ends meet; always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh; but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?  

July 27, 2012

Patty Chang Anker and Leanne Dyck, Two Very Cool Writers

I have so much to be thankful for, not least of all my great writer friends!

Yesterday, the hilarious and smart and insightful Patty Chang Anker talked on her blog Facing Forty Upside Down about when we first met at Bread Loaf last year.  We were roommates.  Patty writes these hilarious essay about facing her fears, and what is particularly ironic and hilarious in a twisted way is that she was on crutches at Bread Loaf because she had been facing her fear of the ocean and got pummelled by the waves and broke her foot.  Not only that, but just after Bread Loaf she rounded up her family and everything they would need and flew to China.  We’ve been lamenting to each other that we didn’t go to Bread Loaf this year and that we couldn’t be roommates again there! It was such a blast! Patty is simply the best. Here’s her bio. 

Patty is an at-home mother of two girls with special needs, a yoga teacher, and public relations pro by day and a writer and blogger (Facing Forty Upside Down) by night. She is a former Director of Media Relations for The New York Times and veteran publicist for the publishing houses of W.W. Norton, Taunton Press and Basic Books, including campaigns for the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times series “How Race is Lived in America,” Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog. Patty is in the midst of writing an undoubtedly hilarious nonfiction book about facing your fears. For an example of her great writing, click here.  
So Patty so kindly mentioned me yesterday, and now there's today!

The wonderful Leanne Dyck invited me to stop by her blog to talk about writing, which should be posted today on her blog The Sweater Curse, which is also the name of her book.  I know Leanne only through the web, but we’ve had some nice conversations and I can’t wait to read more of her work.

Here’s a little about Leanne.

Leanne Dyck began her knitwear design career in August 2002. Her patterns have sold nationally and internationally including to Britain, Australia, and Israel. Shortly after the The Sweater Curse was published, Leanne closed Olavia's hand knitting patterns to write full-time. Writing is a solitary sport, but Leanne is a team player. She bats for the Crime Writers of Canada and is in goal for the Mayne Island Writers Group.

Thank you both, Patty and Leanne, for letting me hang with you cool people!

July 26, 2012

Making Progress


I haven’t talked much about my writing recently.

I’ve been going great guns on a YA novel.  It feels really good.  It’s hard because there for a while life was getting in the way all the time and I wasn’t making any progress and I was feeling a little desperate.  But now that I am, it feels great!

I’m not going to say much about the YA except that it’s a blast to write!  It’s an idea I’ve been mulling over for a long long time.  At first, I thought it would be an adult women’s fiction, but the idea fits perfectly as a YA and if it were to be successful could be a really fun series for both girls and guys. 

I’m taking a week off in August from my day job just to write.  It may be optimistic, but I really am going to try to crank through a first draft by then.  I’m at 16K words and need to get to about 75K. Very ambitious but you have to have goals, otherwise nothing gets done.  Than after that, lots of revision.

Then ~ GULP ~ I’m going to try to tackle a memoir, which scares the dickens out of me!

July 25, 2012


Superbetter is an app based on the principles of online gaming that promises to extend your life by 10 years.  You work on your social, emotional, mental, and physical resilience, which in turn affects your well being and hence your lifespan. 

Interesting, right?  I can't decide whether it's one of those things that are supposed to make us feel better about ourselves without having any real impact, busywork, or there's something to it.  I imagine it depends on how well you incorporate it.  I do find the game's creator, the game designer Jane McGonigal, very persuasive.  And I really like the principles involved ~ there's definitely something there.

Here's Jane's great TED talk.

July 24, 2012

A Finite Resource


Energy is a finite resource.

There’s just this amount of sunlight during the day.  There is only so much oil from just so many plants that powers only this many cars.

I’m sure physicists will argue that energy only changes forms ~ E = mc2 ~ but as far as energy that we can access, it’s limited.

The same goes for personal energy.  A person has only so much energy throughout their life, just as they only have so much time.  This energy is how they affect their world, and how they use it determines how much of an impact they make.

When the energy’s flowing ~ man! ~ I just love it.  If I’m writing and exercising, I’m so much more productive in my work life and at home and in my relationships.  Inertia’s on my side.

But then everything gets stopped up.  There are so many ways that I/we waste energy.  We undermine our own success, and this isn’t as passive as it sounds.  We actively find ways to work against ourselves, whether it’s something we say or avoiding or something else.  Avoiding isn’t a passive thing ~ it’s an active turning away. 

We drink too much, smoke too much, max our credit cards, date the wrong people, have sex with other people while we’re married, abuse ourselves physically and emotionally, overeat, undereat, overexercise, do drugs, and ~ the ultimate self-destruction ~ suicide.

We undermine other’s success too.  If a person finds ways large and small to be needy and destructive and obstructionist at crucial times in another’s life, they’re called crazymakers, and they destroy peoples’ lives and art (see The Artist’s Way). 

Why do we do it?  Why do we spend so much of our energy working at destroying our own energy or someone else’s?  Is it human nature to be self-destructive?  Why are we each other’s death star?

Think how far we each could go if we didn’t do these things.

July 23, 2012

English Don't Make Sense

My friend Mike posted this for me on Facebook.  Love it! Boy, it takes concentration, though.


"The Chaos" is a poem that demonstrates the irregularity of English spelling and pronunciation, written by Dutch writer, traveller, and teacher Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870-1946), also known under the pseudonym Charivarius.

The preface: "If you can pronounce correctly every word in this poem, you will be speaking English better than 90% of the native English speakers in the world. After trying the verses, a Frenchman said he’d prefer six months of hard labor to reading six lines aloud."

The Chaos

by Gerard Nolst Trenite

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Fe0ffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

July 20, 2012

Personal Responsibility


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about personal responsibility.

On one hand, I read this great article about parents in the U.S. these days ~ “Spoiled Rotten,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, which reviews current parenting books.  Following the work of the anthropologist Carolina Izquierdo, Kolbert starts by contrasting a six-year-old girl of the Peruvian Amazon with kids in Los Angelas.  The girl went on a food gathering trip with her family for five days, in which she voluntarily, without being asked, swept the sleeping mats, stacked leaves, fished for crustaceans, and cleaned and cooked them.  She asked for nothing.  Contrast that with LA kids (studied by Elinor Ochs), who couldn’t tie their own shoes and had to be begged five times to just take a bath.  They were singularly helpless.

You should really drop everything and go read the article right now.

But it makes me think about my own life and my own kids.  When I was a kid, we were very much like the girl in the Amazon.  We did things because our worth was equated with how much we accomplished.  I would like to say it was because we all had a sense that we were part of the family and all had to work hard to make the Ranch go, but that wasn’t exactly it ~ there was a little of that, but it really felt much more every man for himself, survival of the fittest.  We used to scoff at the town kids who were “useless and lazy.” We were responsible for things at a young age.

Now, I’m very proud of that aspect of my upbringing ~ traditional values and all that ~ but it had a really unfortunate downside.  The individual didn’t matter, emotions didn’t matter, and I came out of it an emotional trainwreck.  Nobody “saw” me.  I would do anything for anyone for love and attention, and it’s a wonder I wasn’t raped or something else when I went off I my own.

Fast forward to my kids.  Well, there’s this story of them getting ready in the morning.  It hasn’t improved much.  I have to admit that they’re six and they still don’t know how to tie their own shoes.  I am guilty ~ if you want to call it that ~ of many of the criticisms of modern parenting.  (But, you know what, they are HEARD, you know?  They don’t feel like they are a hole in the air.) My husband is better, but still our kids resemble the stereotype.

As a consequence of reading that article above, I’ve started more trying to emphasize their personal responsibility.  We set boundaries, sure, but I’m trying even more to let it be their personal responsibility to get things done, sink or swim.  It’s a daily struggle.

But all this thinking connected up with what I was saying the other day about rape jokes.  I had a conversation on Facebook with a friend about it, and he was much more about personal responsibility.  His bottom line was that words don’t have the responsibility, actions do, and so if you yell “fire” in crowded theater, he said, the fact that people get killed is not the fault of the personwho yelled fire but the fault of the people rushing out the door who kill other people’s fault.

Needless to say, since I’m a writer, I believe in the power of words, and I think that the person who yelled “fire” is the proximate cause. Not that those who ran are totally blameless, though.

But this brings me to blaming the victim.  The horrible part about believing so much in personal responsibility is that then you can blame people for things that happen to them.  You can blame the rape victim ~ basically, she was doing something wrong, perhaps just simply being female.  You can blame the poor person.  The American Dream says that if you just work hard enough, you’ll achieve success.  Well, the other side of that is if you don’t achieve success, it’s your own fault because you don’t work hard enough.  (Was watching a fabulous documentary about Howard Zinn last night that was making this exact point.)  We know that that simply isn't true, as a generalization, and people who are in poverty work just as hard or harder ~ most likely harder ~ than those who are well off.  Cuz they have to.

We are much more affected by forces outside ourselves than we wish to believe.  Social Darwinism really is true.  There are huge forces that not only decide the course of your life but also what brand of latte you buy.  Some would argue that we really exercise no choice at all, that it’s all an illusion.  I don’t go that far, but I do believe that there are huge forces with us or agin us.

I was thinking just this morning that, at the root of all this, was the idea of American Exceptionalism and personal exceptionalism and the breakdown of social ties and our responsibilities to each other.  We in the U.S. no longer feel responsible for other people. We can be as selfish as we want, and we can go around the world bullying everyone and taking what we want.  We don’t worry about the poor and the elderly and we blame them for being poor and elderly.  We think it’s okay to break the rules ~ in fact, we have myths we tell each other all the time about the one who breaks the rules is the one who wins.  How do you get ahead?  You break the rules.  In other words, you put yourself first ahead of all these other people and screw them. And we can get away with it because, ironically, we’re not held accountable.

I also wonder if everyone who is in middle age starts to think these things, that they’re not simply my epiphanies but a product of someone in their mid-forties thinking about things.  So, to put a point on it, that I’m not exceptional in this idea but it’s part of the process of living, just as all teenagers rebel and all people get more conservative as they get older.

Food for thought.

July 19, 2012

'Sick,' by Shel Silverstein

I'm not feeling quite up to snuff today, so in honor of that, one of my favorite Shel Silverstein poems.



by Shel Silverstein

"I cannot go to school today,"
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
"I have the measles and the mumps,
A gash, a rash and purple bumps.
My mouth is wet, my throat is dry,
I'm going blind in my right eye.
My tonsils are as big as rocks,
I've counted sixteen chicken pox
And there's one more--that's seventeen,
And don't you think my face looks green?
My leg is cut--my eyes are blue--
It might be instamatic flu.
I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke,
I'm sure that my left leg is broke--
My hip hurts when I move my chin,
My belly button's caving in,
My back is wrenched, my ankle's sprained,
My 'pendix pains each time it rains.
My nose is cold, my toes are numb.
I have a sliver in my thumb.
My neck is stiff, my voice is weak,
I hardly whisper when I speak.
My tongue is filling up my mouth,
I think my hair is falling out.
My elbow's bent, my spine ain't straight,
My temperature is one-o-eight.
My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear,
There is a hole inside my ear.
I have a hangnail, and my heart is--what?
What's that? What's that you say?
You say today is. . .Saturday?
G'bye, I'm going out to play!"

July 17, 2012

Oh. My. God.

I've always loved science fiction.  There was this one story about a spy that the government altered to be superhuman with steel for fingernails and x-ray eyesight and supersharp hearing and all this stuff.  (I'm not going to be able to remember any titles here.)  Another where you could transport to other planets sort of by fax, and your personality and memories are put into a dummy-but-real body. And another where aliens had created these doorways and when you stepped through you were reincarnated into another species ~ your personhood was put into an alien body ~ on this zoo planet. Oh, oh, and another one.  This one I remember the name of:  Dreamfall.  In it, at birth people take on "augmentation," so that they are physically connected to the internet at all times. Computers have become part of them.

Sounds far-fetched, doesn't it?  But, remember, H.G. Wells's ideas were waaaay out there at one time.

Watch these two TED talks by Juan Enriquez.  All of the things I've mentioned above?  With the current advances in science, they could happen in our lifetimes. All of it. (Well, I don't know about the aliens.)  Isn't that WILD?

July 16, 2012


Want to be a Fig?  A Fig is someone who hangs out at Figment, a community to share writing, connect with other readers, and discover new stories and authors.  Pretty cool, huh?

July 13, 2012

‘Just Kidding’

Daniel Tosh

Bear with me.  Here are four things I was thinking about yesterday.

I have a spitfire niece who, when we were kids, used to do the most outrageous things, and then when you got mad at her, or she was about to face punishment, she’d say, “Just kidding!”  It was a way to try to escape the consequences of her actions. 

A number of years ago, there was this great piece in Playboy written by a man explaining how men don’t understand how women feel when they’re out in public.  They don’t understand that, as a generalization, wherever women go they’re aware of the people around them.  That they won’t wander through a college campus at night without thinking carefully about it and being very aware of their surroundings.  That, unless they have a self-destructive streak, they won’t go out drinking unless they have friends who are going to take care of them.  The point of the article was that they’re hyperaware in a way that most men aren’t.

Today when I went out to lunch with my honey, we were talking about the recent Daniel Tosh debacle.  You know, where good ol’ Tosh O said all rape jokes are funny, and when a woman in the crowd yelled that they were not, he said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” Sure, she never thought anyone would actually do it right there, but talk about your hostile environment. (He did eventually apologize after she posted what happened and people were outraged.)

And then I read this article, “Why Women Aren’t Crazy,” by Yashar Ali, who writes about women’s issues.  It’s about the practice of gaslighting, which is “a term, often used by mental health professionals, to describe manipulative behavior used to confuse people into thinking their reactions are so far off base that they’re crazy.” It’s from the 1944 film Gaslight, where a husband messes with the gaslights to make his wife feel like she was crazy.

What do all these things have in common?  Well, let me see if I can talk through some of it. 

It’s about gender and violence and accountability, surely.  In the first instance, my niece was using language to try to get out of accountability.  In the second, women are in hostile situations where they feel physically threatened and have an inner life that many men don’t realize the extent of.  In the third, besides Tosh O being an unmitigated pig, he’s creating a hostile environment, one that uses language as a weapon to create that hostile environment ~ which in its extremes makes it okay to rape the girl.  In the fourth, it’s about the sometimes unconscious practice men can perpetrate on women that undermine their confidence and allow men to more easily manipulate women.  (Of course this is a generalization. Women do it to men too, I’m sure, but I think it’s much more ingrained the other way in our patriarchal society.)

What do I mean to say about this?  Well, it all coalesced in my mind into a primordial stew and prompted me to think about women’s agency in the world ~ people’s agency, really. 

We use words as tools.  They are how we affect the world.  We convince people to fall in love with us.  We get jobs through our resumes.  We through our lawyers convince a jury that we are not guilty.  They are also weapons.  They do real physical harm because they give permission.  Hate speech really is hate speech.  We talk ourselves into things through rationalizations and we talk other people into things, sometimes just by our presence or our nonaction. (It used to bother me a little when I taught freshman comp and technical writing that I was teaching more effective rhetoric to some who I very much disagreed with. I believe in the cause, though.)

Language is a construct, and the way it is used ~ often unconsciously on the part of the user ~ creates reality and gives permissions and imposes restrictions.  It sets up gender expectations.  These things are not easily changed and they impact every aspect of our lives. 

I don’t think things should be outlawed as not funny and off limits to comics (See this interesting discussion on the Tosh O’s idiocy), just as there should not be topics that are off limits to write about. I think things should be taken on a situational basis.  I guess, though, maybe I’m not one to judge funny, as my sense of humor doesn’t seem to match a lot of people’s (who seem to find hurting others really funny).  I find a lot of humor immensely angry and sad.

(Did I really just undermine my own words in a post about the way the world makes you undermine your own words?)

I guess I’ll end with this.  There is the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  This is simply not true.  They hurt you emotionally, but more importantly they set the stage for violence.  They make it okay to rape someone or to lynch someone or to use children in your war.  Caricatures allow people to be dehumanized, which gives others permission to do all kinds of things.

Of all people, a comic should understand the power of words. And if he does, that makes it even worse.

UPDATE:  What a fabulous well-written piece on Jezebel about this idea. Much more eloquent than my own.

July 12, 2012

'Literary Fiction'


Today, for your edification, the entry in Wikipedia for "literary fiction." There are things I agree with and things I don't. What do you think? What's your definition? Click here to read a previous post in which I explore the topic.
Literary fiction
Literary fiction is a term principally used for certain fictional works that are claimed to hold literary merit.
Despite the fact that all genres have works that are well written, those works are generally not considered literary fiction. To be considered literary, a work usually must be "critically acclaimed" and "serious". In practice, works of literary fiction often are "complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas".
Literary fiction is usually contrasted with paraliterary fiction (e.g., popular, mainstream, commercial, or genre fiction).
Literary fiction is usually not considered a genre, with associated conventions, but there are common characteristics that can help define it.
Literary fiction, in general, focuses on the subjects of the narrative to create "introspective, in-depth character studies" of "interesting, complex and developed" characters. This contrasts with paraliterary fiction where "generally speaking, the kind of attention that we pay to the subject in literature ... has to be paid to the social and material complexities of the object".
Literary fiction does not focus on plot as much as paraliterary fiction. Usually, the focus is on the "inner story" of the characters who drive the plot with detailed motivations to elicit "emotional involvement" in the reader.
The style of literary fiction is often described as "elegantly written, lyrical, and ... layered".
The tone of literary fiction is usually serious and, therefore, often darker than paraliterary fiction.
The pacing of literary fiction is slower than paraliterary fiction. As Terrence Rafferty notes, "literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way."
As a genre
Some authors suggest that literary fiction is, in itself, just another genre or set of genres. Samuel R. Delany, for example, notes that the "literary genres might be characterized as the 'tyranny of the subject'" because of the focus on the "subject, the self, [and] psychology". On the other hand, Mort Castle suggests that literary fiction is composed of three genres: literature (i.e., classics), realism, and postmodernist fiction.
Other authors struggle with the expectations of the literary 'genre'. In an interview by Lev Grossman for Time magazine, John Updike lamented that "the category of 'literary fiction' has sprung up recently to torment people like me who just set out to write books, and if anybody wanted to read them, terrific, the more the merrier. But now, no, I'm a genre writer of a sort. I write literary fiction, which is like spy fiction or chick lit". Likewise, on The Charlie Rose Show, he shared that he felt this term, when applied to his work, greatly limited him and his expectations of what might come of his writing, and so does not really like it. He said that all his works are literary simply because "they are written in words".

July 11, 2012

Going Deeper

I’ve been thinking about the Malcolm Gladwell video I posted yesterday. I’ve also been thinking about some of the great bloggers who consistently write long and glorious and intelligent posts ~ my friends at Guy’s Library and The Vivid Ellipsis and This Is So Gay and Brain Pickings immediately come to mind, but there are more.  Byliner also highlights great thoughtful long-form journalism. And of course there's TED.

These people push the limits of knowledge.  They explore things deeply and intimately.  The lengths of what they write harkens back to a slower time and is not what internet marketers say you should write.  No, our attention spans are too short these days.

But I know that I crave these types of essays.  I don’t always find the time to read as many as I’d like, but I love them.

On this blog, I tend to write a bit shorter.  What I can think through in a matter of a half an hour or an hour.  I quickly write through an idea, but I never go back and revise (except superficially), and I rarely do much research.  I draw from what I already know or personal experience or the source I’m talking about.  I post 5 days a week, and it’s sometimes challenging to come up with interesting things to write about every day. But it’s fun too.  And I think readers rely on bloggers to be predictable and regular in their posting habits.

But I sometimes fear that these posts are too shallow, and I long to go deeper.  So many great writers have talked about how writing is thinking, and the only way they know what they are thinking is by writing it through, thinking about it, revising.  I’ve thought about developing one post a week into a longer, researched, more in-depth kind of thing, but I don’t have the time at present.  I’m also afraid my fiction would suffer (which is what I most want to write).

Truth be told, I’m in love with people’s minds, with ideas, and because I value these so much, I don’t want to come across as shallow or surficial.  I want to “measure up.”  I would like to have the time and mental space to explore these ideas and to arrive at new and distant shores.  I am infinitely attracted to the Gladwellian life.

July 10, 2012

Malcolm Gladwell on David and Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell wrote this piece for the New Yorker on a youth girls' basketball team who against all odds took on stronger teams and won.  That prompted his new book David and Goliath.  Here's his fascinating talk from the New Yorker.

July 9, 2012

'Tree Marriage,' by William Meredith

The other day, Garrison Keillor featured this poem on The Writer’s Almanac. I just love it.


Tree Marriage

In Chota Nagpur and Bengal
the betrothed are tied with threads to
mango trees, they marry the trees
as well as one another, and
the two trees marry each other.
Could we do that some time with oaks
or beeches? This gossamer we
hold each other with, this web
of love and habit is not enough.
In mistrust of heavier ties,
I would like tree-siblings for us,
standing together somewhere, two
trees married with us, lightly, their
fingers barely touching in sleep,
our threads invisible but holding.

July 6, 2012

Writer or Liver?


When my wonderful mother-in-law was visiting, we stopped by the kitchen store, The Cupboard, in Fort Collins, and I picked up a couple of great vegetable cookbooks.  We belong to a CSA and so it’s necessary to have a good variety of solid veggie recipes on hand.

One is The Monastery Garden Cookbook by Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette.  I just love the medieval illustrations and love the recipes I’ve tried.  Simple and delicious.  The other is Serving Up the Harvest by Andrea Chesman.  The recipes are a little more elaborate but I’m loving them too.

I read Chesman’s great introduction to Serving Up the Harvest the other day, and there was this. 

There are two types of gardeners, I think.  There are gardeners who cook, and there are cooks who garden.  You can recognize my type by my less-than-photogenic garden, my casual attitude toward weeds, my hatred of thinning (throwing away good food!).  I spend winter evenings with cookbooks, not with treatises on soil building.  I am unlikely to plant vegetables that are reluctant to grow in my northern garden [Vermont] just to prove that I can.  I have never grown a prizewinning anything.  I have never even set aside space in my garden for carving pumpkins.
Don’t get me wrong.  I have tremendous respect for those who put gardening first.  Their gardens are gorgeous!  These gardeners are often so adept in the outside world that they are capable of building beautiful trellises and amazing bean tepees.  They never fail to properly put the garden to bed in the fall, and their peas are inevitably two weeks earlier than mine.  They often lead the way with planting new varieties or experimenting with old heirloom varieties.  They save seeds, and they have opinions on compost.
But here’s the difference.  Cooks who garden are thrilled by the harvest.  We believe every overflowing basket of vegetables is an opportunity for a crispy fresh salad, a fragrant harvest stew, a terrific new pasta sauce.  On the other hand, gardeners who cook will spend hours in the garden, making everything look perfect, and then find themselves stricken with guilt. Oh no, they suddenly realize, someone has to cook all those vegetables.

I couldn’t agree more ~ I’m in the cook-who-gardens camp, perhaps due to my very practical upbringing.

But that got me thinking:  there are writers who live and livers who write.  I’m the former, of course. (It all comes back to writing for me, doesn’t it?)  It’s not that I don’t live, but writing is my passion, what I obsess about.  If you see me staring off into space, I’m probably thinking about writing.  I’m not so far out on the spectrum that I lose touch, however. (Some might dispute that, hehe.)

If I may generalize, if you’re a writer who lives, as you live you’re thinking about how that would come across on the page.  You’re constantly mentally taking notes about ideas for stories or visual descriptions or character names.  You’re constantly feeling guilty about how little writing you get done and all the unborn ideas that are lost in the river of time.

If you’re a liver who writes, it’s the living that’s the most important.  You may be like Mark Jenkins, a Laramie outdoors writer who does these amazing things and then writes about them for Outdoors or National Geographic.  You sometimes put your life in service of your writing, such as having new experiences so that you can write about them.  Nothing thrills you more than the thought of your next adventure.

I was just thinking about Hemingway, trying to decide if he was a writer or a liver.  Maybe he was both.  Maybe he was someone who was just so driven he tried to do both~ driven to live up to the myth of Hemingway and also driven to be a great writer.

Which are you?  Are you a gardener who cooks or a cook who gardens?  Are you a writer who lives or a liver who writes?  Are you a scientist who dads or a dad who sciences?  Are you a runner who philosophizes or a philosopher who runs? Are you an African American in politics or a politician who is African American?

July 5, 2012

At Least I’m Not Chasing Cows

"Snow Storm ..."  by J.M.W. Turner

Every day, when you drive down Grand Avenue in Laramie, there’s this guy walking back and forth on the sidewalk along the same block carrying a sign.  On the sign, it does not say “The world will end.” It does not say “Down with the government.”  No.  It says, “AT&T Mobile.”

It’s always the same guy on the same block in front of the AT&T store.  The guy carrying the sign invariably has on a pair of earphones.  He carries the sign hugged to his body next to his ear, so that he walks with his shoulders hunched forward and his head hinged off-center away from the sign. It’s as if he’s lurching slantwise down a hill.

Every time I see him, I think, God what a horrible job.  Maybe I’m projecting, but I don’t think I’m alone here.

Whenever things are tough at the office or we’re doing something we don’t like to do, my husband and I have this thing we say.  “At least we’re not doing X.”  X is that job you did when you were young that you absolutely hated.  For me it was chasing cows on foot far from home in a freak early fall or late spring snow storm, the ones in which the icicles hang off the horses' noses and the snow or fog make it hard to see and you never have enough coats so you have to stomp your feet to keep warm.  (Us kids walked; some of the older cousins had horses.) For my husband, it’s cleaning out an un-air-conditioned hog farrowing house in Nebraska in August with a power washer.  Remember to keep your mouth shut.

I think it’s a good thing to remember.  We have so much here in the United States and so much more than our ancestors.  And we so take it for granted.  I must remind myself of this every so often.

July 4, 2012

Happy 4th, or 'Screw You'

Happy 4th, everyone! How long has it been since you read ~ I mean really read ~ the Declaration of Independence? Have you ever?  I used to teach it in freshman composition, not as a historical document but as a rhetorical stance.  A bunch of guys saying, hey, King George, you suck, and these are all the ways that you suck.  And did you know that ALL those who signed it were totally ruined? Look at their faces.  Try to imagine how the scene really looked, how it wouldn't at all have been like this.  I tried to get the students to see the document looking forward, not back through the surity of history, to how scary it must've been. Maybe you're a kid, and your dad is kind of erratic, but you know if you tell him off he's going to beat the daylights out of you. So you tell him off anyway. 

The Declaration of Independence

In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776

The unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of AMERICA.

WHEN, in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another; and to assume, among the Powers Of The Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the Causes which impel them to the Separation.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their CREATOR with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established, should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security. Such has been the patient Sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The History of the present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

HE has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.

HE has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance, unless suspended in their Operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

HE has refused to pass other Laws for the Accommodation of large Districts of People, unless those People would relinquish the Right of Representation in the Legislature, a Right inestimable to them and formidable to Tyranny only.

HE has called together Legislative Bodies at Places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the Depository of their public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into Compliance with his Measures.

HE has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly Firmness his Invasions on the Rights of the people.

HE has refused for a long Time, after such Dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, Incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining, in the mean Time, exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and Convulsions within.

HE has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither, and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

HE has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

HE has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their Offices, and the Amount and Payment of their Salaries.

HE has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance.

HE has kept among us, in times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the Consent of our Legislatures.

HE has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

HE has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

FOR quartering large Bodies of Armed Troops among us:

FOR protecting them, by a mock Trial, from Punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

FOR cutting off our Trade with all Parts of the World:

FOR imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

FOR depriving us in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury:

FOR transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended Offences:

FOR abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an arbitrary Government, and enlarging its Boundaries, so as to render it at once an Example and fit Instrument for introducing the same absolute Rule into these Colonies:

FOR taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

FOR suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with Power to legislate for us in all Cases whatsoever.

HE has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection, and waging War against us.

HE has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.

HE is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to complete the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny, already begun with Circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation.

HE has constrained our fellow Citizens, taken Captive on the high Seas, to bear Arms against their Country, to become the Executioners of their Friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

HE has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.

IN every Stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble Terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury. A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every Act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.

NOR have we been wanting in Attentions to our British Brethren. We have warned them, from Time to Time, of Attempts by their Legislature to extend an unwarrantable Jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the Circumstances of our Emigration and Settlement here. We have appealed to their native Justice and Magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the Ties of our common Kindred to disavow these Usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our Connexions and Correspondence. They too have been deaf to the Voice of Justice and of Consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the Necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the Rest of Mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

WE, therefore, the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in GENERAL CONGRESS, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be,FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political Connexion between them and the State of Great-Britain, is, and ought to be, totally dissolved; and that as FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which INDEPENDENT STATES may of Right do. And for the Support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of DIVINE PROVIDENCE, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honour.

July 3, 2012

The West Is Burning

photo by Wayne Karberg
The West is burning.  I don’t know what the statistics are, but there are fires up and down the Rocky Mountains from Montana to Mexico, at least 56 named fires.  We’ve had the smoke for weeks now, but just in the last couple of days, the Squirrel Creek Fire broke out in the mountains west of Laramie and is now at 7,000 acres.  The smoke is so thick it looks like evening is falling or huge rainclouds are blocking out the sun.  Last night, as we stood outside, cinder fell lightly like snow.  The smoke gets in your eyes and your throat and makes you cough.

I remember the Yellowstone fires in 1988.  I was living in northern Wyoming 60 miles away that summer.  The sunsets were gorgeous.  I don’t remember if cinder fell, but I think it did.

I’m tempted here to do my usual rhetorical move, to talk about something bigger than all of us, maybe the mutability of life, how things must be destroyed in order to grow.  But I’m not going to do that.  Instead, I want to think about all those people who are evacuated and/or have lost their homes.  The way I want to think about it is by remembering when our house burned.

It was a Thursday night during the winter of 1978.  The reason I know that is that we were watching our family favorite TV show.  We had one of those old console TVs, and because we were in the middle of nowhere, we only got one fuzzy station (on which Granny Dynamite, when she visited from Iowa, intently watched her “stories”). So we were watching The Fantastic Journey ~ there’s a lot of scifi fans in my family.  My mom was lying with her back to the fire, and I leaned back against her with her belly for a backrest.

The power flashed and the TV cut out.  This is not uncommon.  The power lines were aboveground then, and so it happened every so often.  It would take a day or two for the power company to come out and fix it.  But in this case, my older brother Jim went down into the basement to flip the switches. In doing so, he opened the door to what we called “the Rustic Room,” and smoke came billowing in. Quick investigation showed fire on the ceiling of the kitchen. 

Our gnome-like hired hand Fay was asleep upstairs, so Jim ran upstairs and met him at the top and knocked his glasses clean off.  Fay came downstairs in his red longjohns and continued fighting fire in them for the rest of the night.  Jim investigated upstairs and ended up having to jump off the second-floor roof into the rose bush.  I was told to get out and go to the car, as they were going to take us kids to our aunt and uncle's house.  Since smoke was billowing from the room you go through for the front way, I went out the back.  I was by myself, about 9 years old.  Pitch dark, but I glanced up and I could see the flames coming out a window and I could hear the fire popping and crackling.  Somehow that was the worst part.  It seemed this living breathing thing that cackled and taunted me in its own language.  I went the long way around, past the lilac and through the thistles and bouncing bets.

The firetrucks took a while to make it the 25 miles from Lovell, and then they had to pump from the creek.  People came to help.  But I didn’t see it, of course.  Us kids went stayed overnight elsewhere.  Our house did not burn to the ground, but it might as well have.  It was left a craggy hulk, and everything was ruined by the fire or by smoke or by water damage.  To this day, when I open boxes of memorabilia from my childhood, they smell of smoke.  Yep, I think, that’s the Ranch.

We got by.  We moved a trailer right next to the house to live in.  There weren’t enough bedrooms, so I slept on the couch.  All our stuff was gone, but the very kind people of Lovell took up a collection and gave us clothing and kitchenware and all kinds of stuff. 

How did it affect me?  Well, I actually think I just took it in stride, really.  It was one calamity in a long line of calamities.  Us kids joke that it was a miracle we survived childhood, but now that I am a parent, it is not at all a joke.  Being terrorized by any number of wild and semi-wild animals.  Chasing buffalo as a kid, with no truck or anything nearby to save you except one person with a rifle. Accidents like falling off cliffs, getting run over, hunting accidents where arms are shot off.

But I digress. 

I think I am more affected by it as an adult than I was then.  I get it now, the gravity of losing your home and everything you own.  Your memories.  A security, something you take for granted, will always be shattered, kind of like when the person who is the linchpin of your family passes away. 

We used to know this in our bones.  We were much more vulnerable to the vagaries of nature and of each other.  Major shit happened all the time.  People died. Mother Nature took us out.   Just as I like my indoor plumbing, I am not at all romantic about a happier golden age closer to nature.

So I’m sending the best thoughts to all of you who have been evacuated or lost your homes and my heartfelt thanks goes out to those firefighters who step up every day.