Wednesday, July 09, 2014

One Patty is not like the other

Jeffrey Toobin writes about the Supreme Court for The New Yorker. The New Yorker is famous for the rigorousness of its fact-checking. I don’t know if the biographical information about John Roberts that Toobin includes in his latest book also appeared in The New Yorker. Regardless, it’s time for a little correcting.

John Roberts, the future Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Toobin says, attended a single-sex Catholic high school in Indiana.

Roberts was not just the valedictorian of the class of 1973. He served as captain of the football team, a varsity wrestler, member of both the student council and the drama club. (He played Peppermint Patty in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown …)

A real jack-of-all-trades, eh? For a moment I was amused by imagining the young Roberts in drag as a female Peanuts character. Then I remembered that Peppermint Patty is not a character in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Toobin isn’t the first to make the mistake. My high school did You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, too, and there was some confusion about the character in it named Patty. The original Patty had disappeared from the comic strip by the 70s.

The original Patty, a blonde, and her friend, Violet, a brunette, were a tag team who were alternately friendly with and harassers of Charlie Brown, more or less the role Lucy later filled. I’m not sure when the original Patty (and Violet?) disappeared, yet a second Patty had (coincidentally?) joined the strip’s cast at about the same time You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown was being written. Peppermint Patty (unlike the original Patty) was a tomboy and was the first girl Charles Schulz didn’t draw in a dress. Peppermint Patty wore shorts and sandals. Had John Roberts played Peppermint Patty on stage he would hardly have been in drag at all.

A 1999 revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown switched out Patty for Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally.

source: The Oath: the Obama White House and the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Keep your medicines out of reach of your octopus

[B]iologist Roland Anderson … helped to design an experiment for a female giant Pacific octopus … named Billye. … A fellow female octopus named Pandora had gotten tasty hunks of herring in a screw-top jar, which over several tests took her an average of two minutes to open. Anderson … decided to … ‘offer [their captive octopuses] childproof pill bottles.’ … Anderson and his team at the aquarium had drilled small holes in the plastic bottle so Billye would be able to get a whiff of the meat inside. Fueled with this incentive, she managed to open the bottle … in … about fifty-five minutes. … With a little practice, she was able to get it down to an average of about five minutes.

It was the kind of child-proof bottle where you have to push the lid down while turning it. I just got one of those from the pharmacy. After I open one of those I won’t tighten the lid again. My mother often had me open her childproof bottles. There have been times I’ve been tempted to saw the top off.

source: Octopus! the most mysterious creature in the sea by Katherine Harmon Courage

Monday, May 05, 2014

Poetry & Comics in a Spinadoodle

source: Sam Spina's Spinadoodles blog

Two of my favorite things - poetry and comics. “John P.” might be John Porcellino, creator of King Kat Comics. I’m guessing so because John Porcellino’s work often feels like poetry to me, with his line drawings suggesting more than they explicitly depict, and their frequently contemplative quality. Is Noah in the strip disparaging comics for being “like poetry”? Chiding comics creators for making comics only another comics creator will want to read? It’s a common criticism of poets these days. The final panel might be a confirmation of Noah’s belief - the girl is yawning so Habibi (a book-length comic) must not be connecting with this reader? We don’t know whether the girl is a comics creator. I suspect the confirmation is meant to be gently ironic - it is being offered by a comics artist in comics form, after all.

I discovered “Bar Talk with Noah” in a collection of Sam Spina’s autobiographical Spinadoodle strips that I bought at the Alternative Press Expo 2012 . With all the eager artists and their often-impressive wares at table after table, the choice of what to actually buy ends up more random than you’d think. There are things one takes into consideration, of course. I bought Spinadoodles: the third year because - ? Because I usually like autobiographical comics. Because the price wasn’t bad. Because I liked the art. Because the artist was selling his work himself. Because the artist was cute.

update 5/20: Sam Spina confirms my suspicion: "I am talking about John P of King Cat fame with another really, really awesome cartoonist Noah Van Sciver in that strip."

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

“The question of publishing is always the question of facing embarrassment”

In an interview the Icelandic poet Sjon says, “The question of publishing is always the question of facing embarrassment.”

Sjon published his first book as a teenager and recently came out with a collection called Complete Poems. The interviewer asked about the decision to include those early poems. Sjon replied:

My first poems were written when I was fifteen and published in the summer when I was sixteen, so [my first book] is really something that was written by a fifteen-year-old teenager. I actually decided to print them all, to just let them out there, because you can find them in the library. … [W]hy don’t I just acknowledge … them[?] … I am not sure I would have been so relaxed twelve years ago or so. Today, now, I am approaching middle age, so I’ve got no problem with that because the question of publishing is always the question of facing embarrassment.

The Sjon quote puts me in mind of those who advise writers not to send their work out too quickly. You might not realize it’s bad, these advisors say, so keep it back until you’re sure. There’s nothing you’ll regret so much as seeing embarrassing poems in print. Bad poems will haunt you!

Hmf. When a publisher chooses your work, they are usually choosing it over the work of others. Publishing is a lot of work - and not much reward. So if they like something trust that they like it, that they saw a value in it, something worth their trouble and expense. If you decide that, after all, the poem was lousy, well, so what. Lots of lousy stuff seems to get into print. Maybe the publisher put it between covers (or into pixels) for extra-literary reasons - because you paid them to, because you’re their friend and they didn’t want to hurt you, because you have a big name they hoped would help with marketing, because reasons.

A poet’s collected poems rarely includes everything they’ve published. Even a Complete Poems will exclude poems. I recently read through all of Alicia Ostriker’s poetry books yet did not find a poem I copied out from an anthology a few years ago. I copied out a couple poems from her books, too, but clearly Ostriker did not agree with me that the poem in the obscure anthology was superior to so many she chose over it for her collections. Was she embarrassed by the poem after its publication? Should Ostriker’s opinion of her poem (or her publisher’s opinion) influence mine?

source: Gulf Coast: a journal of literature and fine arts v.24, issue 1, winter/spring 2012

Thursday, March 27, 2014

“How does this even work?”

In a moment of deep despair, I grabbed a knife and toyed with ending my life. … I took the knife into the bathroom … I walked to the shower, slid the glass door open, and sat down inside, sliding the door shut behind me. … [T]he room just beyond was a blur, obscured by soap scum. … I ran the dull side [of the knife] along my left wrist, like I was taking it for a test drive. The metal, like the shower floor, was cold. … How does this even work? I asked, almost aloud … I couldn’t will myself to go through with it. I was too afraid - of the selfishness of this act and how my family would react to it; of the physical pain involved; of failing at this, too; but most of all of the fate I was sure would greet me after death.

That’s Chris Stedman’s low point, according to his memoir Faitheist, which recounts his spiritual journey, from culturally Christian as a child to his born-again experience as a teen to his accepting himself as a gay man and rejecting Christianity’s monstrous god.

Stedman says the main reason he didn’t kill himself in the shower that night was the expectation he would face the terrible tortures of hell, suicide being one of those sins that park a soul in that unfriendly place. In a post earlier this month I wondered if many people were dissuaded from killing themselves out of fear of the afterlife. In the above passage Chris Stedman says that fear was what, “most of all,” made him choose life.

Maybe so. Stedman lists other reasons, though. And by the time he crouches in the cold shower he is already convinced that his same sex desires have reserved him a boiling pot of torment in God’s ugly cellar. Stedman has prayed repeatedly over the Bible verses that supposedly condemn homosexuality, and God hasn’t piped up with any relief. He isolates himself from his family and his Christian friends. He is in pain and sees no way to alleviate it.

Considering the rest of the memoir, its testimony to Stedman’s need for social engagement, his sense of justice, I’m not convinced that imagining post-death torture is what stops the knife. I suspect it had more to do with the poverty of the Christian version. This Christianity is empty of love so his empty heart yearned for something beyond it.

I know I contemplated the permanent pain killer and hell was no factor. Nor, for that matter, was another of Stedman’s reasons for living - what he calls the “selfishness” of suicide. Rather, if I can come up with any particular reason why I’m yet alive, if one really can look into that tunnel-vision state of mind and say much coherent about it, I’d say I could imagine a better life. I could imagine not hurting so much. I could even imagine being happy. I didn’t know how or if a better life would be mine, but it was not out of the reach of my dreams.

source: Faitheist: how an atheist found common ground with the religious by Chris Stedman

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Are we ‘the people’?

[M]any indigenous cultures refer to themselves as the people, implying that everyone else is not the people. [Derrick Jensen] asked whether, then, some form of xenophobia is inherent in all of us.

[Richard Drinnon responded,] “The name strikes you and me as xenophobic since a cardinal principle of our Western civilization has been what one anthropologist calls ‘the negation of the other.’ By contrast tribal cultures affirmed ‘the other who affirms you’ and this principle always carried with it the possibility of extending the people outward …’”

I’ve wondered about this “the people” business. I remember encountering it first in a PBS documentary about the people of the American Southwest. The Navajo call themselves Dine, which the narrator said translates as “the people.” I think I was a teenager when I saw the program. As I read more about Native American tribes I came across others who referred to themselves as “the people.” What does that make the rest of us?

Richard Drinnon thinks the contrast between us/the people and them/not? the people for tribal societies and us and them in modern Western culture is that the us of the tribe is open to adoption, whereas the us of modern Western culture is essentially race based, which makes becoming one of us in modern Western culture extraordinarily difficult, and frequently impossible. In this discussion curated by Derrick Jensen in his book The Culture of Make Believe Richard Drinnon says the adoption principle can extend “outward, beyond family and clan and tribe to all other beings and things in a universal embrace.” If true - and common - then calling one’s group “the people” wouldn’t have much meaning.

source: The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen

Monday, March 24, 2014

brushing your teeth with birds screaming on your head

A few years ago I watched the documentary version of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (you can see a snippet here, and loved it.

Finally I got around to reading the paperback. It’s almost as engaging as the film.

Mark Bittner was living in San Francisco’s North Beach when he found a position as caretaker for an elderly woman on Telegraph Hill. She didn’t need him much so Bittner was able to turn his attention to the wildlife of the neighborhood. With visions of being an amateur naturalist Bittner started studying - and feeding - a wild parrot flock. Gradually he gained the flock’s confidence and in the years that he knew them met each spring’s babies. An illness struck many and Bittner took a few into his house to nurse with some success, releasing each when it had regained its strength. Here’s a charming excerpt featuring two of those babies:

Dogen and Paco had developed an odd little enthusiasm that was part of the nightly household routine. The moment they saw me heading to the studio’s tiny bathroom to brush my teeth, they’d stop whatever they were doing and zoom over and land on my head, where they’d begin an intense round of play fighting. While I stood in front of the mirror brushing, they’d be crawling around my head and shoulders trying to bite each other and screaming in my ears. I have no idea what the appeal was. I got so accustomed to it that while they were fighting I’d be brushing and thinking about something entirely different, as if they weren’t there.

Mark Bittner keeps a blog, Views from a Hill.

source: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill by Mark BIttner

Sunday, March 02, 2014

“Hogan” a poem by Archie Washburn


Sitting against
The flying dust of wind.
Here and there flows the old raggy
Long johns.


A hogan is a traditional Navajo circular mud and stick house. Having visited the Navajo reservation and seen a hogan in real life, its low, reddish brown form fitting in well with the red brown sweep of desert vistas, having felt the wind blow across the rocks and around the Monument Valley towers and buttes, I can see the flag of underwear in Archie Washburn’s poem shaking out its white story, making almost homey that human-dwarfing expanse.

With “Hogan” Washburn has crafted a cinquain, an American verse form inspired by Japanese verse forms like the haiku and tanka. Two syllables go in the first line, four in the second, and so forth.

source: Voices from Wah’Kon-Tah: contemporary poetry of Native Americans edited by Robert K. Dodge and Joseph B. McCullough

Saturday, March 01, 2014

“he can shuffle off his present”

The narrator of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon is a good Christian who discovers a hidden but European-like country where no one knows his religion. His efforts to evangelize are met more with bemusement than interest. In one argument the narrator quotes from Shakespeare to bolster his faith in an afterlife: “[I]t is the fear lest worse evils may befall us after death which alone prevents us from rushing into death’s arms.” As suicide is a terrible sin for Christians, when you kill yourself you condemn your soul to eternal torment in hell. Thus you might as well suffer a little longer in your mortal existence to save yourself from greater pain later. The Erewhonian scoffs:

If a man cuts his throat he is at bay, and thinks of nothing but escape, no matter whither, provided he can shuffle off his present. … Men are kept at their posts, not by the fear that if they quit them they may quit a frying-pan for a fire, but by the hope that if they hold on, the fire may burn less fiercely. [One hangs on with the hope] that though calamity may live long, the sufferer may live longer still.

Erewhon is often a sort of mirror-version of England and I suppose Samuel Butler is critiquing the conventions of England via his creation. I’m afraid I don’t always get it. In this instance I do think the Erewhonian gets the better part of the argument. Have many suicides been stopped out of fear of hell? Doesn’t seem likely to me. Christian opprobrium, rather, just comes across as mean-spirited, like beating a horse with a broken leg to make it pull an overloaded cart. The cart isn’t going anywhere and the beating isn’t doing anybody any good.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Details, details

In 1977 I turned twelve. My parents had divorced when i was three, but Dad came to visit a few times despite the distance - my mother and brother and I lived in California, Dad in Alaska. Dad remarried, choosing a woman with two sons roughly the ages of my brother and me. Then he had another child, a daughter. For two years running Dad sent me and my brother tickets to join him and his new(er) family for a vacation in Hawaii. I have fond memories of the experience, even if my stepbrothers and I didn’t always get along; the little sister was five years younger, if I remember right, and a charming bundle of energy.

Lately I’ve been reading Barack Obama: the story, which is less a biography of Barack Obama than it is a collage of details, all sorts of people and places, with Obama (and his ancestors) weaving through them. Obama was born in Hawaii and spent most of his childhood there. He attended an elite school on Oahu called Punahou. This passage about the graduation ceremony connected with a couple of my own life’s details:

[S]eniors had to sing for their diploma. Since the end of April there had been six weeks of rehearsal for the entire class, mandatory … Classmates had written some of the songs and chosen the others. … One of the contemporary songs they performed was “This Day Belongs to Me” by Seals and Crofts, from the soundtrack of One on One, a Robbie [sic] Benson movie about Barry Obama’s favorite sport.

One on One was shown on the plane to (or from) Hawaii. I remember not wanting to see it because it was about sports, the sort of thing I hated at school and was quickly bored by as a spectator. A whole movie about basketball? Ugh. Plus wasn’t Robby Benson kind of funny-looking? But I remember liking the movie all right. I just looked up the song “This Day Belongs to Me” and it doesn’t sound familiar but it’s a pleasant ditty. I would have liked it as a kid, probably more than now. I bet it sounded just fine coming out of teen throats at Barry’s graduation.

Robby Benson is better looking than I remembered, but this scene I found on youtube makes me uncomfortable now with its calculated bullying by the authority figures and I’m sure it enraged me at the time. Surely Robby got his revenge?

source of quote: Barak Obama: the story by David Maraniss

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The dream that inspired Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain”

I recently read an interview with Peter Gabriel in Mojo Magazine. His big break-out album So has been rereleased with special features. I bought So when it was new and have listened to it many times. “Red Rain” was inspired by a dream. The lyrics allude to that dream:

I am standing at the water’s edge in my dream
I cannot make a single sound as you scream

But that’s as far as the song goes. In the interview Peter Gabriel describes the dream more fully:

The sea [was] parted by two walls. There were these glass-like figures that would screw themselves into each wall, fill up with red blood and then be lowered across the sand … to the next wall, where they’d unload the blood on the other side.

source: Mojo #238, September 2013

source for lyrics: azlyrics

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Links? Why “Links”?

When we visited Oahu last fall Kent and I drove past another one of those signs that announces the “Links,” by which we are to understand we are passing a golf course. Kent offered his version of the origin of the term - the holes are linked, therefore, the Links. While not without logic this explanation didn’t seem enough. But I didn’t remember to look it up. Nor have I on other occasions. So when I came across an explanation in The New Yorker, I had to show Kent. And now, I’ll show you:

[I]t’s actually a geological term. Linksland is a specific type of sandy, wind-sculpted coastal terrain - the word comes from the Old English hlinc, “rising ground” - and in its authentic form it exists in only a few places … the most famous … in Great Britain and Ireland. Linksland arose at the end of the most recent ice age, when the retreat of the northern glacial sheet, accompanied by changes in sea level, exposed sandy deposits, and what had once been coastal shelves. Wind pushed the sand into dunes and rippling plains; ocean storms added more sand; and coarse grasses covered everything. Early Britons used linksland mainly for livestock grazing.

When sheep graze linksland the result, apparently, is a lawn suitable for golf. The lawn-covered dunes provide gentle slopes and curves to knock a ball over. Nor, it seems, was there much competition for linksland. With all the sand under its thin topsoil, it’s no good for planting.

Golf, says the author “was permanently shaped by the ground on which it was invented.” The word for the kind of terrain on which the game is played has become a golf term.

source: “The Ghost Course” by David Owen
The New Yorker, April 20, 2009

Monday, February 17, 2014

“Language is not a diamond”

In introducing a translation of a work by Jose Manuel Prieto, Esther Allen says this:

Language … is not a diamond, its super-hard molecules permanently ordered in a fixed pattern … it is, rather, … inevitably illusory and impermanent, dissolving into an ungraspably fine powder when any determined will is brought to bear on it.

It’s fun riposte to those who believe there is only one way to say anything. And that goes for translation, too; there is more than one way to bring over meaning from one language to another.

source: Two Lines, vol. 16: Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed edited by Margaret Full Costa & Marilyn Hacker. 2009. The Center for the Art of Translation

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

word of the day: slazy

context: Bucky and his friend Davy Jones the Wooden Whale are careening down a slippery slope. Bucky is clinging to the deck rail on the whale’s chin when he realizes that the slick surface consists entirely of soap. “At the moment of his discovery, they were bounding through a slazy ravine, shut in on either side by cliffs of soap stone.”

source: Lucky Bucky in Oz by John R. Neill

definition: Couldn’t find one.

“Slazy” appears in some online dictionaries as an alternate form of “sleazy,” which doesn’t seem at all to be the way John R. Neill uses the word. It may be a coinage of Neill’s own. Perhaps he is putting together the words “slick” and “mazy” …