Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Poe Toaster: A Delicious Mystery

-revised from Lit, my blog about enduring literary mysteries, from the early aughts, with a hat tip to the big Poe funeral bash going on in Baltimore

Each year on January 19th a shadowy figure approaches a tombstone in a Baltimore graveyard. Hooded, the figure places a half-empty bottle of cognac and three roses upon the grave before disappearing back into the darkness.

The mystery of the Poe Toaster has endured for over a half century, in spite of the fact that this annual event on the date of Poe's birth has begun to attract crowds of people wishing to relish a mystery Poe would have been proud to have penned.

The hooded visitor has not remained the same, however. A note found among the roses in 1999 stated that the original visitor had passed away in December, 1998. The continued visits, thought to be carried out by family members of the original Poe Toaster, are evidence of a legacy hinted at in a 1993 note which read only that "The torch will be passed."

While some mysteries beg to be solved, this is not one. I don't care to know who this person or these persons are, or their connection to the author. We discover new things about Poe's writing all the time, and just as his writing is often about mystery and death, so went his own life and death. That such a delicious mystery lingers around his grave is only fitting.


An illustration by Harry Clarke. Clarke's illustrations for Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination are among some of the best examples of illustration as an art. What seems hard to reconcile with the decadence of these pictures is Clarke's primary occupation - a designer of stained glass windows for churches.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Conservatives Jump The Shark

I've been reluctant to delve into politics in this blog, having done so in previous incarnations with little ear from the left and vague threats from the right. However, at this moment, I cannot help but think that those with even the vaguest remnant of conservative tailbone will be appalled at the right's aggression toward Obama's classroom address.

After all, the litmus test for this is simple. If you have a conservative friend, or are a conservative, that pulled a child from class to save him/her from indoctrination into Obama's socialist agenda, the question is:

Is the child still enrolled in public schools?

Because if you believe the president can brainwash your child in half an hour then, aside from an incredible lack of confidence in your child's intelligence, you've been watching entirely too much Fox. And if you persist in that belief, then why haven't you pulled your child from public ed altogether?

I would not be afraid of a speech. I would be afraid of a president who has empowered his Secretary of Education with a treasury unequaled in the history of the position. Sweeping reforms are in the pipeline. Why is your child still in school the day after, "conservatives"?

Please do us all a favor. Remove your children from schools, not for a day, but for good. With so much propaganda in their homes, education cannot help them--isn't that the same knock you've placed, and are still placing, against the poorest segments of our population for years? Can you practice what you preach? Or is it all style (speech) vs. substance (reform)?

And you have the money to move, unlike so many of those you've railed against in the past. Put it where your piehole is. No teacher should be burdened with the responsibility of trying to reverse the effects of your flat-earth, anti-evolution, dead-weight home-schooling. Adopt the Bible as your textbook, embrace intelligent design as your religion, and watch the rest of the world leave you behind.

When you are standing back there, sowing gapeseed, maybe you'll remember how you belittled the very people that were once in your position. I doubt it. Your education does not extend even as far back as to encompass Saint Ronnie "Ketchup-Is-A-Vegetable" Reagan's speech to schoolchildren.

That's actually sad. Why? Because you can't practice evolution if you don't believe in it. It's just you sitting atop a pile of disgruntled turtles you believe will always be there to support you, and all the while it is moving out from beneath you, albeit slowly.

How's that social Darwinism working for you now?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Cunning Corvids

They can tell us apart, but we can't tell them apart.

And now, it seems, adaptive thinking is not solely relegated to the higher mammals. Rooks can make tools as well as crows, a finding that reduces the likelihood of a strange evolutionary pressure resulting in the earlier Caledonian crow findings.

Increasingly we understand that myths about ravens are not far at all from the truth. They truly can lead large predators to prey. They will hitch a ride on a boar's back, and the young grow up learning how to test wolves' limits. Indeed, ravens and wolves have been seen playing.

At some point we will learn that intelligence has evolved into its own family tree, and that our brain size does not necessarily indicate a monopoly upon certain kinds of intelligent thought. In fact, our brain size may well be getting in the way of certain types of thought - the premise for Kurt Vonnegut's wonderful Galapagos. Hopefully, however, increased understanding and respect for the intelligence evidenced by our fellow inhabitants will save us from our own big-brained extinction.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bitch Kitty

Numerous readers (in my mind) have inquired regarding the fate of Bitch Kitty.

The first rule of the fate of Bitch Kitty is. . .

Follow the Palahniuk narrative here, folks.

The second rule. . .

Or, if that's too recent a read, you can always step backward into T.S. Elliot's money-maker. Every cat has three names. The first is its secret name, the second known only to itself, the third the name given. . .

No pic exists for Bitch Kitty.

Bitch Kitty is the extremely over-compensated CEO of MICEnterprise, Inc., one of the world's best mousetrap inventors. Build a better mousetrap. . .

Bitch Kitty is a protagonist in a William Gibson novel, and she is suing him for libel.

Bitch Kitty is an aerial acrobat nonpareil. The silk butcher of an airy button.

Bitch Kitty makes her entrance stage right and her exit stage left. In Greek tragedy she would be Medea.

In Willy Shakes, Lady M. Paws must be cleaned of damned spots.

Bitch Kitty knows no fear of the internal workings of the jiko.

If you give Bitch Kitty milk, she will not be full of the milk of human kindness. She'll only be full of milk.

Bitch Kitty vs. Safari Ants=Safari Ants + food

She was not always welcomed. She was not always turned away.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Dog With No Name

It's a catchy title, but it doesn't stick.

Likely Needlenose had numerous names. He was, as the pic indicates, a charmer. He wouldn't have been much more than a snack for a leopard. His survival skill set was based on his social graces, and these he had in abundance.

He was consistent. He had his appointments and he kept them. We were just a stop along the route that ended with a safe bed somewhere, but not with us. Like any semi-feral dog, Needlenose had his share of fellow travelers, bloodsuckers all. Unlike Bitch Kitty, whose favorite entrance was the unannounced flying leap through an open window onto a crowded table, Needlenose was not as presumptuous. He didn't shove his way in, having too much game for that.

Having a village dog is a good thing, if you can't have your own, and subsistence isn't exactly welcoming to pets. One more mouth to feed is, well, one more mouth to feed. Sometimes the margin is too slim for anything but family.

It's hard to know the average lifespan of a village dog. It likely varies wildly from dog to dog, village to village. We were only in Kenya for a year, and Needlenose was part of it. He didn't seem to want to be a big part of it.

He sure had a knack for choosing his spots, though.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Raymond Carver, where are you calling from?

You may be familiar with Raymond Carver, even if you don't recognize the name. Years ago acclaimed director Robert Altman made a rather forgettable movie titled Short Cuts based (loosely?) upon Carver short stories. A grand hotel of a film, I don't remember anyone being able to pull off a short sketch of character the way Carver did.

Or did he? Rumors have long circulated about the brilliance of Carver's first editor, Gordon Lish, and now, thanks to Carver's second wife Tess Gallagher and cohorts, we can assess that influence ourselves.

I must admit a limited familiarity with Carver. I own a copy of Cathedrals, Carver's first post-Lish venture. I'm unfamiliar with Lish's purported influence, but it's not hard to see where Carver may have needed a firm editorial hand.

Mind you, all of this is said with completely grudging admiration. No doubt exists that Carver was an extraordinarily gifted writer. A Simple, Good Thing stands as one of my favorite short stories, even though there are places where it is positively clunky:

"We've been waiting with him until he died. But, of course, you couldn't be expected to know that, could you? Bakers can't know everything--can they, Mr. Baker? But he's dead. He's dead, you bastard!"

The funny thing about this passage is that, in context, it is not a sore thumb. People say nonsensical things in the middle of immense grief. Still, it does not lend itself to multiple readings (I readily admit this may be because of the strong South Park flavor--"You killed Kenny! You bastard!").

Just a page later, however, you get a full dose of Carver's skill as he delineates the baker's response--

"'Now I'm just a baker. That don't excuse doing what I did, I know. But I'm deeply sorry.' [. . . ]He spread his hands out on the table, and turned them over to reveal his palms.[. . .]"I don't know how to act anymore, it would seem.'"

The way this scene is written is masterful, even with its stumbling. Something about its imperfection rings, if not exactly true, fictionally substantial. In short stories, where each word must advance the story unlike the novel's sprawling grasp, fictionally substantial can work, but a good editor can turn that into a more graceful bridge to suspension of disbelief.

So what to think of these percolating revelations? Frankly, the headline smacks of an editor's heavy, sensationalizing hand. The author manages to strike a balance, if leaning toward Carver. This is ever the highwire act in which writers engage one another, and it is to Carver's credit that he recognized Gish's talent, as well as his own.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Moving Bones

This is a confession.

For years, particularly after my beloved mentor's death in December of '06, I would remember with a certain amount of regret the pained look on his face at my rationale for not attending grad school.

I owe the writer I am today in no small part to Dr. Dan Leidig, a great bear of a man, a gentle poet, apparently a firebrand in younger years who could still summon frightening flames from his depths for deserving, callow youths like myself in his later years.

To say he was my faculty advisor is to give short shrift to his influence on my life. He was extraordinarily insightful, yet concise, two qualities often in conflict--and here I think of another professor I had who was very insightful, but preferred the longer road. Worth the trip, too.

As my friend and advisor, however, it was Dr. Leidig who took the boy nicknamed Trouble and instilled in him the worthiness of the writing life, the joy to be experienced in discussing and dissecting the higher ideas which are the terra firma any writer worth his or her weight touches upon during a career engulfed by something as ephemeral as the written word. The ideas are the weight our words, even in their most banal moments, are tasked to bear.

I don't recall ever referring to Dr. Leidig as "Dan." Unlike other professors, he never allowed his status as teacher to defer, guardian of the flame of higher learning that he was. He saw no greater calling than the life of the mind and teaching it, and to that end he constantly urged me toward graduate school and the life of a professor--how he adored the root of that word, one professing, evangelizing.

For a long time I've questioned my decision, and thought much about the words I chose to let him know. Having given a hard look at grad school, with its emphasis on the study of literary criticism in place of literature itself, I couldn't bring myself to acquiesce, or--as I so callously put it--"to move bones from one pile to another."

So, I link to this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education with reluctance, not simply because the articles phase out and can't be accessed without a subscription, but because I definitely do not want to sound as if I am, in any way, crowing. My decision to not pursue grad school was, in large part, made by my decision to travel and see a world that I had been isolated from for all my life.

In 1987, however, this is how I saw grad school:

"For decades the performative [critical] model obscured a situation that should have been recognized at the time: Vast areas of the humanities had reached a saturation point. Hundreds of literary works have undergone introduction, summation, and analysis many times over. Hamlet alone received 1,824 items of attention from 1950 to 1985, and then 2,406 from 1986 to 2008. What else was to be said? Defenders of the endeavor may claim that innovations in literary studies like ecocriticism and trauma theory have compelled reinterpretations of works, but while the advent of, say, queer theory opened the works to new insights, such developments don't come close to justifying the degree of productivity that followed."

The thrust of the article is that, in the face of this saturation, the importance of publishing yet another Marxofeministicodependentontological interpretation of The Purloined Letter has come at the cost of some very crucial interaction:

"Their [first-year students'] engagement with instructors outside of class is similarly tenuous. On the 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement, 38 percent of first-year students 'never' discussed ideas from readings or classes, and 39 percent did so only 'sometimes.'
[. . .]Asked about quality of relationships with faculty members, 78 percent of first-year students on the student-engagement survey graded their instructors 5 or higher on a scale of 1 to 7 (65 percent of respondents in the first-year survey answered "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the amount of faculty-student contact). In other words, they liked their professors, they felt comfortable with them, but they didn't much care to spend time discussing books and ideas with them. They didn't realize that an essential part of higher education takes place in conversation, in face time with professors, in the give-and-take of one-on-one discussion."

See, I have no room for "I told you so." Along the way the way was lost, the center did not hold, the professor became the profession. As much as he loved language, Dr. Leidig loved his students more, and a world in which professors and students did not interact was not a world with which he was familiar. To his credit, and others at E&H, it was not a world with which I was familiar. It was in fact, and in spite of Dr. Leidig's demarcations, an alien thought. How could one teach with the office door perpetually closed, with the life of the mind supplanted by the life of the party?

To this day I have a scrap of paper he paperclipped to a term paper of mine he admired. Written in pencil in his neat cursive is this quote from E. B. White's Once and Future King: "Run, boy, run!" I've always thought of it as an encouragement. Crafty old man.