Wednesday, October 7, 2009
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.'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?
[. . .]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."
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.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
The argument goes like this--we're writing more, speaking less, and the forms in which we are communicating privilege concision and wit. We're communicating more, but in shorter, more meaningful bursts.
It's an interesting argument and worth the read. I'm still on the fence, personally, much like this writer -
"So I am glad, honestly, to have the old world of print and film supplemented by the new world of text and video. And I'm eager to stick up for casual and often vulgar online writing and culture as long as I'm not forced to defend them in grandiose terms. The internet often gratifies my curiosity and sense of humor, no small thing but nothing to confuse with whatever it is in me—something far more deeply interfused—that is gratified by poetry, philosophy, history, modes of writing that hardly exist online."
What are your thoughts?
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
As I start a new job, with better pay, I'm trying to remind myself of how I have lived the past three years. I wouldn't wish it on anyone--I've had some pretty crappy jobs, none of which actually paid the bills, but on the plus side, I have learned to live frugally, and to control my wants and not let my haves and have nots control me. It's a lesson I do wish upon others--the lesson, and not necessarily the circumstances that often confer it.
This hasn't been a stretch for me, in reality. In Kenya I lived without electricity and running water for a year, in a 10 by 10 brick house that had one room. I ate pretty much the same thing every day.
Someone once told me, on his deathbed, that debt is a sin and a tool of the Devil. I'm not necessarily persuaded of the religious content, but the financial content is truthful. He was a religious man, an evangelical; still, I wonder how many Christians are mindful of the parable in Luke 12, 13-21? Lost from the Greek is the fact that the farmer's possessions called out to him.
What is possessed, and what possesses us?
I failed to fully understand the Songlines quote until recently, when it clicked. The moment described, when all is full of destruction, is also a moment of liberation, total freedom. It is not an accident that the possessions are likened to locusts--a plague, but one moving rapidly away. Loss of complication, gain of simple beauty and truth.
I'm not about to do this--not sure the kids would enjoy a cave--but I admire this man for his stand. He is a free man, living a life worthy of examination.
I'm not preaching--we all come to simple truth and beauty in our own ways, or not at all. Just meditating on what it means to own, and be owned, and how that influences our behavior.
Saturday, July 18, 2009
Friday, July 17, 2009
As curious a comparison it may seem, Cujo by Stephen King comes to mind, particularly in the way innocents are swept up in an all-devouring evil. In Cujo, however, the cause of this evil is shrouded, its motives veiled. The result is more akin to Greek tragedy in which fickle gods can be heard laughing backstage. Not so in No Country. God is either absent or "that god lives in silence who has scoured the following land with salt and ash." Through a forsaken country filled with people that don't know what to believe, the force of evil, embodied in Chigurh, moves unhindered. Indeed, he seems a prophet, full of conviction in his own beliefs, and given to sermons that end in bloodshed.
"I had no say in the matter. Every moment your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person's path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning."
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Because, frankly, I think he's brilliant. I think Monty Python owes him an acknowledgement at the very least. Now, for something completely different, a nun with one buttock.
'We would indeed be in a bad way if poets did not have shoulders.'
If you have not read Candide, Voltaire's satiric masterpiece, you should. It's quick, it's fun, it is still relevant well over a century later.
"'Aren't you surprised by what I told you about those two Oreillon girls who were in love with two monkeys?' asked Candide.
'Not at all,' said Martin. 'I don't see anything odd about their passion. I've seen so many strange things that nothing is strange anymore.'"
Monday, July 13, 2009
“We must cultivate our garden,” wrote the French philosopher Voltaire in his satirical novel Candide, yet there was little satire meant in that closing sentiment. Small groups of people finding a literal common ground and tending it, while sharing their struggles to continue a meaningful life in the often bizarre wider world, is a need even more cogent today than in Voltaire’s pre-industrial age. Locally, that need is taking shape in the form of
Begun four years ago with the purchase of 1.1 acres and four buildings near the post office on
Eco-villages are, simply put, free-standing, self-sustaining communities. There is no recipe for them because each community and its resources are different. The single uniting factor for eco-villages is the belief in local abundance, that what is needed is within reach.
“I’m not a utopian,” says Johnson. “We’re an enterprise, and we want to develop local enterprises.”
Part of this plan to develop responsible local businesses has already resulted in the Local Roots Café, which uses produce from the gardens and area organic farms to craft tasty meals. The linkage of a restaurant to the gardens and those farms provides the critical functions of supply and demand for everyone involved. The restaurant, gardens and farms are given an independence from the sometimes turbulent food supply chain, growing food for both self-sustenance and commerce, with the restaurant creating jobs and demand for the farms.
The restaurant also serves another critical mission of the eco-village vision, that of public awareness. Behind every meal served at Local Roots is the belief that organic, whole foods make you better in numerous ways.
That belief has been evolved into a partnership with two
Likewise, many of the businesses housed on the grounds are centered around, for lack of a better phrase, building a better you. Massage, holistic medicine, meditation and an emphasis on the arts are all surrounded by the currants, spinach, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and other produce items too numerous to mention.
Through all the growing seasons, the Gardens have been growing the connections that grow community. Johnson has great praise for area organizations such as the Grandin Village Business Association and Roanoke Neighborhood Services.
“Bob Clement (of Roanoke Neighborhood Services) does a great job with that.”
With all that has been achieved, there is still much to be accomplished, according to Johnson. A center for educating people about growing their own food in urban centers, a media center for responsible communications, a health center−these are just a few of the plans envisioned for the Gardens. As these move forward, says Johnson, the greater vision of self-sustaining eco-villages throughout
“We want to mature this function,” he says. “We feel what we are doing is replicable in any setting, urban or rural.”
Written by Jeff Crooke. Originally published in The Roanoke Star-Sentinel, though this lead paragraph is mine and not the revised one printed.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Shame made you hide this fecundity,
Dead white, until pinning you,
Parting the loved locks of your childish scalp,
I found life swarming over you.
Sometimes revulsion is ineluctable
As physical law, and pushes you back.
Later, I try to explain my reaction:
Houses hold roaches and mice,
In the immaculate dress of a hummingbird
Mites pass tiny lives from probing bill
To cardinal flower.
Flukes await frogs, voles eat frogs,
And the heron, standing one-legged
In its own reflection,
Eats vole. In all the fluke
Lives, breeds, needing each to survive.
Whether design or profligate coincidence,
Every moment is marked with this
Infestation of birth as well as death.
Our human spans sometimes blind us;
So it was after your minute birth
That I could look upon you,
Seeing only birth, and life.
I distanced myself from the truth
Hidden in your hair,
And must now love you as you are,
Not wholly of me, not mine,
Possessing the full circle unbroken.
Beauty is not always truth;
And, for that, love is ever richer.
Monday, July 6, 2009
This is a list of links I compiled of literary figures (complete with the crude navigability of the day!) - not simply authors, but people with lives that touched meaningful literature meaningfully. Therefore you will find not only resources for Sylvia Plath, but also for Lady Caroline Blackwood, for Vonnegut but also for Leonore Fini (pictured). Please let me know if you discover bad links.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
Proverbs for Paranoids: Pursuing Pynchon
Ask most people which author has earned the title "Most Reclusive" and the answer will invariably be J.D. Salinger. I attribute this to his popularity, for if you were truly interested in lifestyles of the shy and reclusive, Pynchon's seclusion is infinitely more interesting.
With the publication of his first novel, V, in 1963 Pynchon went underground and has been seen only rarely since.
Part of what makes Pynchon's penchant for anonymity so attractive is his literature, which not only features paranoia as a dominant theme, but is capable of recreating the experience in the reader. Anyone who has read The Crying of Lot 49 knows that he or she will never enter a post office with the same perspective again.
Combine this literary theme with the sort of personality that enjoys reading Pynchon, and you get a virtual telephone game surrounding the author's reticence. Rumors swirl - someone claims to have toked with Tom, another claims Pynchon wrote Gravity's Rainbow while stoned.Asterisk's prank with Hunter S. Thompson fans has its forerunner in Wanda Tinasky. When letters began appearing in a tiny northern California newspaper, the style and timing were attributed to Pynchon, who was rumored to be in the area at the time, working on Vineland.
Again it was literary sleuth extraordinaire Don Foster who brought the truth to light. Writing in Author Unknown, the same book in which he made the case for Henry Livingston Jr. as the author of "The Night Before Christmas," Foster concluded that Tinasky was a murderous beatnik, not the reclusive author.
The most recent and reliable Pynchon sighting occurred in 1998, when a reporter named James Bone snapped the author picking up his son from school.
Frankly, I don't buy Bone's bullsh*t rationalizations for taking the photo. I won't even go into the remarks about Pynchon plundering the graves of the defenseless dead - Mr. Bone apparently forgot Pynchon writes fiction. An author that has chosen anonymity is a much different type of public figure, letting readers enjoy creations without the filter of omnipresent celebrity. A picture of Pynchon picking up his son from school tells us nothing about how or why he writes, his professional habits, what creative process from which he pulls inspirations. Note that Bone makes no mention of how Pynchon's son reacts to his father's obvious distress, to the confrontation with a stranger on the street. Such details would likely cast Mr. Bone in the same ghoulish spotlight inhabited by Beatrice Sparks.
Thomas Pynchon's privacy is his own to dispose of at will. That should be respected in as much as it is representative of a right inherent to us all. Beyond that consideration, however, I have an appreciation that I believe others share for the mystery behind the fiction. Like the Poe Toaster, such a mystery only deepens appreciation of the works that come out of it. Each one approaches like cannonshot above a river; it is out of respect for the living, as much as the dead, that we must wait patiently for the river to give up the body.
If anyone ever hears of Bone in Baltimore on January 19, make every effort to insure he is suitably restrained. He is obviously not to be trusted in the presence of a good mystery.
(pictured above) One of the few extant Pynchon pics.