Monday, September 19, 2016

find the world

… in prose you start with the world
and find the words to match; in poetry you start

with the words and find the world in them.

That’s Charles Bernstein from his poem “Dysraphism”.

source: From the Other Side of the Century: a new American poetry, 1960-1990 edited by Douglas Messerli

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Notes Toward an Autobiography by Others

”What’s your favorite color?”
The question came, one morning on the walk to school, from my five-year-old daughter, lately obsessed with “favorites” — declaring hers, knowing mine.
“Blue,” I said, feeling very much the Western male (the West loves blue, and men love it a bit more than women).
A pause. “Why isn’t our car blue, then?”
“Well, I like blue, but I don’t like it as much for cars.”
She processes this. “My favorite color is red.”

That’s the way Tom Vanderbilt begins, You May Also Like, his investigation of favorites, of taste, how we come to like one thing (music, food, color) over another.

I remember being obsessed with favorites as a kid. I’m a little embarrassed by it now. While I certainly have preferences these days, I have tried to cultivate a pleasure in variety, in not having one favorite but in appreciating many things, in finding things to like in places that seem unlikely (or unlikable). 

Yes, I remember insisting that people (my mother, my classmates) come down on a favorite color, as though announcing a favorite defined something essential about that person, something helpful. I think my favorite was red. But I also interrogated this preference. I would look at red in a shirt, red in an advertisement, red in a flower and ask myself if, really, this red was better than blue or purple or yellow anywhere. There were different shades of red, I could see. Maybe there was the shade of red that was the finest, that I could say was my favorite red, no, not just my favorite red but my favorite color, that other shades of red might not hold up to every blue the way my favorite red surely would. 

I remember one time quizzing people on their favorite television network. At the time for me it was CBS. Because they ran a Muppet special, I think. There must have been one or two other things. Maybe they hadn’t preempted a favorite program for a stupid play-off game like other dumb networks. Unlike with the favorite color I mainly got puzzlement over the idea of having a favorite television network. Not just, I like red sometimes, I like blue sometimes, I guess I don’t have a favorite, but what’s a network? If you don’t know which network airs your favorite TV shows how can you declare a favorite network? Not only was educating people on the premises of my question more work than I wanted, the people I had to educate weren’t interested in the lesson. C’mon the CBS eye logo is kinda cool even now, right?

source: You May Also Like: taste in an age of endless choice by Tom Vanderbilt. 2016. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Toast and coffee with your fried eggs?

When I came across “Ladle Rat Rotten Hut” (when I was a teen, I think) I was fascinated. The educator H. L. Chase had written the text to prove that you could switch out similar sounding words for the familiar ones and the listener would be able to discern the original sense as though interpreting an accent. “Ladle Rat Rotten Hut” equals “Little Red Riding Hood.” (The Exploratorium has Chase’s version of the classic fairy tale on its website.) I’ve seen something like this as well when writers attempt to reproduce the sounds of a particular accent. One less radical version you might have seen (or even accidentally used) is the switching out of the contraction for “have” with the soundalike “of” as in “He should of done that already!” (instead of “He should’ve done that already.”)

I have used this homonymesque technique in my writing, poetry particularly, adding slightly hidden meanings or puns. I like to stretch the soundalike across more than one word. Chase does this, too. Here’s Red Riding Hood to the Wolf in grandmother disguise:

"O Grammar, water bag noise! A nervous sore suture anomalous prognosis!”

Let’s see if I can translate: O Grandma, what a big nose! I never saw such an enormous proboscis. I think I got that right. “Anomalous prognosis” doesn’t sound much like “enormous proboscis” to me and I had to struggle a little figuring out what Chase meant us to read. In the category of soundalike covering more than one word: "suture" stands in for "such a", "water" for "what a". You can break words up, too. "Grandma" might be written "gray maw," for instance. (If there’s an authoritative translation of "Ladle Rat" I haven’t seen it.)

It’s tricky. Push this too much and the hidden meaning is so hidden as to be absent. I often have trouble parsing Chase’s “Ladle Rat Rotten Hut” and it’s not supposed to be a big challenge. 

In his memoir/essay about being young and fighting the good fight in ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) back in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, Dale Peck writes about a bit of goofiness amid the fierce seriousness:

Byron … taught me to yell “ACT UP! Fight back! Fried eggs!” (instead of “ACT UP! Fight back! Fight AIDS!”) to relieve the monotony of two- or three-hour chants at demos: you could shout it right in cops’ faces, in reporters’; they never knew the difference.

Given that I often can’t make out the words in chants if I don’t already know what the chanters are shouting, I’m not surprised Peck heard no one puzzle over the fried eggs part. Close enough, right?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Roxane Gay On Assholes

In a chapter of friendly advice in her book, Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay has a few things to say about assholes, the whole body variety:

Sometimes your friends will date people you cannot stand. You can either be honest about your feelings or you can lie. There are good reasons for both. Sometimes you will be the person dating someone your friends cannot stand. If your man or woman is a scrub, just own it so you and your friends can talk about more interesting things. My go-to explanation is ‘I am dating an asshole because I’m lazy.’ You are welcome to borrow it.

Don’t flirt, have sex, or engage in emotional affairs with your friends’ significant others. This shouldn’t need to be said, but it needs to be said. That significant other is an asshole, and you don’t want to be involved with an asshole who’s used goods. If you want to be with an asshole, get a fresh asshole of your very own. They are abundant.

source: Bad Feminist: essays by Roxane Gray
2014. HarperCollins, NY

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

pile of reading

The Singular Pilgrim: travels on sacred ground by Rosemary Mahoney
This is a library discard I grabbed before it got boxed up for donation. I’m reading it on my work breaks. And quite enjoying it. Mahoney is good at description and evoking place. I’m currently in the chapter on Varanasi, the holy city in India where human bodies are cremated and the ashes scattered in the sacred Ganges River. Mahoney is impressed by how polluted the river is. The last passage I read has her walking up to a man who is emptying garbage from plastic bags directly into the river. There are signs forbidding this activity but he’s hardly the first person Mahoney has seen flouting such rules. Anyway, Mahoney walks up to him and tells him to stop it. Stop throwing garbage in the river. He pauses, perplexed and a little intimidated by the foreign woman. “Not even the electric wires?” he says. 

The Bridge: the life and rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick
I’ve been eyeing this biography on the shelf at the library where I work. After David Maraniss’s Barack Obama: the story left us hanging as young Mr Obama heads off to law school, I’ve wanted a biography that brings me a little closer to the present. Remnick’s The Bridge was published a year into Obama’s presidency, so maybe this will serve. Like the earlier book this is a fatty, clocking in at 586 pages. So I haven’t been in a hurry to commit. Now that I have checked it out, I guess I’m still not in a hurry to commit. I’m a big 14 pages in. Am I in love with Barack Obama? He seems to me rather cold. But I’m curious about him, where he came from, how he got to the White House. He’s done some good things there, and yet … there seems to be so much more he could have done. He still has a little time. 

Moonshot: the indigenous comics collection edited by Hope Nicholson
This won an award and the theme piqued my interest so I ordered it from the library. Not far enough in to have many thoughts on it. 

From the Other Side of the Century: a new American poetry, 1960 - 1990 edited by Douglas Messerli
Douglas Messerli’s Sun & Moon / Green Integer Press has been home to much avant garde or innovative writing. I read his anthologies of non-U.S. poets and enjoyed them so brought home a nice used copy of From the Other Side of the Century when I had opportunity. At more than 1100 pages I figure I will be reading it for a while. I’m coming up on a fourth the way through and the reading has been pretty good. Yet I connected more frequently with Messerli’s non-U.S. poets anthologies than here. 

Selected Poems by W. H. Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson
This is one of those books I got well into then put aside for several months. I got hung up in a long take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. After finishing some other books I took on completing the Tempest section and both liked and struggled with the task. I’m now on to Auden’s 1946 “Phi Beta Kappa Poem.” 

A Longing for the Light: selected poems by Vicente Aleixandre, edited by Lewis Hyde
Having just read an anthology of 20th century poets of Spain and having been favorably impressed, I looked on the shelf at the Central branch to see what individual poets’ collections the library owned. I pulled this one. Aleixandre has appeared in my personal anthology so I ought to read more. “If you could only see what suffering / the moon displays without trying.”

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon edited by Ivan Morris
Sei Shonagon was a contemporary of Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji. Both women lived in Japan and were members of the imperial court about a thousand years ago. Shonagon recounts anecdotes and makes lists of personal likes and dislikes. The reader is immersed in an unfamiliar but not incomprehensible world of art and etiquette and mild intrigue. It’s a book I sometimes forget I’m reading.

Oakland Review #2, edited by Paul Corman-Roberts and J de Salvo
My friend Tim Donnelly has poems in this issue and I picked up a copy at a reading in Oakland last week. I also handed one of the editors an envelope full of my own poems in hopes that, you know …

Poems for the Millennium, volume 4: the University of California book of North African literature edited by Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour
Another fat anthology. I’ve enjoyed earlier volumes of the Poems for the Millennium series and there hasn’t been much North African or Arabic literature in my diet (partly because there isn’t a lot in translation and partly because I haven’t been much fond of it). This volume wasn't easy to find.

Bird Dream: adventures at the extremes of human flight by Matt Higgins
I watched a video on youtube of a man leaping from an airplane in one of those full body wingsuits and coming in for a water landing on a lake. All other wingsuit videos ended with the daredevil deploying a parachute for landing. The video looked pretty authentic. But I wasn’t certain. Then I came across Bird Dream in the library. The book seems to be about the very feat I watched the video of. Other books keep supplanting it in the gotta-read-now category but maybe I’m ready this time? It looks like something I want to read.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Titles Read in 2015

I Hugged This Pony Today by Leo Puppytime, et al
The Stop & Go Show #1 by Leo Puppytime 
Perpetual Nervousness #6 & #6.5 by Maira
The Solstice Submarine a 3D minicomic by Christopher Joel & Donna Almendrala
Parthenon West Review, issu3 7, 2010
This Layer of Plush by Ann Veronica Simon
The Transparent Body by Lisa Berstein
The Graces by Aaron Shurin
Index/Fist, Feb 2014: The Opposite of edited by Caroline Kessler, Janet Frishberg, Lulu Richter
Fairy Tales and After by Roger Sale
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (ebook)
Wet Reckless by Cassandra Dallett
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn
What Light Can Do by Robert Hass
The Reenactments by Nick Flynn
Poetry Jan 2014, vol. 203 no. 4 
Mouth by Lisa Chen
Mixed Up! a zine about mixed race queer & feminist experience
It Never Happened Again by Sam Alden 
A Short History of Laos, 2002 edition by Grant Evans 
Poetry Feb 2014, vol. 203 no. 5
Notes on the Mosquito: selected poems by Xi Chuan
Secrets of the Kingdom: the inside story of the Saudi-U.S. connection by Gerald Posner
7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book by Marvin Bell, Tomaz Salamun, et al
Sister by Raina Telgemeier
Lockjaw & the Pet Avengers by Eliopoulos & Guara
Poetry March 2014, vol. 203 no. 6
The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold
Irene #5, 2014 edited by Andy Warner & Dakota McFadeean
’68 by Paco Ignacio Taibo II
Poetry April 2014, vol. 204 no. 1
Two Lines no. 18: Counterfeits edited by Luc Sante & Rosanna Warren
Poetry May 2014, vol. 204 no. 2
The Rock from Mars by Kathy Sawyer
My Judy Garland Life by Susie Boyt
The Gate by Francois Bizot
Second Avenue Caper by Joyce Brabner & Mark Zingarelli
Destination Cambodia by Walter Mason
Eavesdrop Soup by Matt Cook
The Wild Trees by Richard Preston
Cinder’s Kingdom by Adeline Esquerra & Ryane Acalin
Poems Out of Harland County by Vivian Shipley
Poetry June 2014, vol. 204 no. 3
Against Forgetting: 20th century poetry of witness edited by Carolyn Forche
City of Coughing and Dead Radiators by Martin Espada 
Fanny Kemble’s Civil Wars by Catherine Clinton
Greenpoint by Russell Lichter
The Unreasonable Slug by Matt Cook
The Narnian: the life & imagination of C. S. Lewis by Alan Jacobs
The Virtues of Poetry by James Longenbach
Poetry July/Aug 2014, vol. 204 no. 4
Proving Nothing to Anyone by Matt Cook
Driving Mr. Albert: a trip across America with Einstein’s brain by Michael Paterniti
10 Pocket Poems coutesy of Mrs Dalloway’s bookstore, Berkeley
The Selected Poems of Irving Layton by Irving Layton
Astro City: The Tarnished Angel by Kurt Busiek
Poetry Sept 2014, vol. 204 no. 5
Some Angels Wear Black: selected poems by Eli Coppola 
Astro-City: Shining Stars by Kurt Busiek
Destination Saigon by Walter Mason
Americana: the Kinks, the riffs, the road by Ray Davies
Arroyo Literary Review Spring 2012
Astro-City: Through Open Doors by Kurt Busiek
A Place I’ve Never Been by David Leavitt
The Sculptor by Scott McCloud
A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Again by Lynne Knight
Poetry Oct 2014, vol. 205 no. 1
Petty Theft by Pascal Girard
The Legend of Oz: the Wicked West #4 by Hitchison & Borges
All-New, All-Different Avengers free comic book day sampler from Marvel by Mark Waid, Mahmud Asrar
Magnus Robot Fighter & Nexus #1 by Baron & Rude
A Member of the Family: gay men write about their families edited by John Preston
Astro-City: Local Heroes by Busiek & Anderson
The Tales of Olga da Polga by Michael Bond
William and the Lost Spirit by Bonneval & Bonhomme
Poetry Nov 2014, vol. 205 no. 2
Einstein’s Daughter: the search of Lieserl by Michele Zackheim
A Year of the Hunter by Czeslaw Milosz
The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer
Autobiography by Morrissey
Lucky Life by Gerald Stern
The Infinite Wait & other stories by Julia Wertz
Difficult News by Valerie Berry
Poetry Dec 2014, vol. 205 no. 3
It’s Not Over by Michelangelo Signorile
Super 8 by Richard Lopez
Smile by Raina Telgemeier
Mirror Maker by Primo Levi
In the Wake of the Day by John Ash
The Family of Max Desir by Robert Ferro
Tomboy by Liz Prince
Reader Please Supply Meaning by Jim Murdoch
Two Lines 2012: Passageways edited by Camille T. Dungy and Daniel Hahn
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Enizagam 2011, issue 5
Sparks-tastic: 21 nights with Sparks in London by Tosh Berman
American Zen: a gathering of poets edited by Ray McNiece & Larry Smith
Berkeley Poetry Review 2012, #42
Oatmeal Magazine #8
When I Grow Up by W. W. Denslow (ebook)
Project Pendulum by Robert Silverberg
Anorexia by Lisa Bernstein
Terms of Service by Jacob Silverman
The New York Review of Books May 7, 2015, vol. LXII no. 8
Best American Comics 2014 edited by Scott McCloud
The Anatolikon by John Ash
The Spectral Boy by Donald Petersen
On the Move by Oliver Sacks
The Enchanted Apples of Oz by Eric Shanower
The Ice King of Oz by Eric Shanower
The Secret Island of Oz by Eric Shanower
The Forgotten Forest of Oz by Eric Shanower
Portfolios of the Poor by Daryl Collins, et al
Masters of Sex by Thomas Maier
Snaggletooth in Ocean Park by FrancEye
Smash Cut by Brad Gooch
Berkeley Poetry Review 2010, #41
The Blue Witch of Oz by Eric Shanower (as appears in Adventures in Oz)
Pippi Goes on Board by Astrid Lindgren
Seriously Funny edited by Barbara Hamby & David Kirby
Massive: gay erotic manga edited by Ishii, Kidd, Kolbeins
Second Son by Robert Ferro
Nippon by Jonathan Hayes
The Parthian Stations by John Ash
Tablegeddon a mini comics anthology edited by Robert Kirby
Deep: free-diving, renegade science … by James Nestor
BUMF vol. 1 by Joe Sacco
To Keep Time by Joseph Massey
Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari
Berkeley Poetry Review 2009, #40
The Gift to Be Simple: a garland for Ann Lee by Robert Peters
Pratfall a mini comics anthology edited by Robert Kirby
My Avant-Garde Education by Bernard Cooper
Pippi in the South Seas by Astrid Lindgren
To the City by John Ash (as appears in Two Books: The Anatolikon & To the City
This One Summer by Jillian & Mariko Tamaki
Gay in America portraits by Scott Pasfield 
The World Between Two Covers by Ann Morgan
Roots and Branches edited by Howard Junker
Eating Fire: my life as a Lesbian Avenger by Kelly Cogswell
The Bedside Guide to the No Tell Motel, Second Floor edited by Reb Livingston & Molly Arden
Why Religion Matters by Huston Smith
Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari with Eric Klinenberg
Variety Photoplays by Edward Field
Heat a zine edited by Camille & Tom
Two Lines Spring 2015, no. 22
Gaysia: adventures in the queer east by Benjamin Law
The Flayed God: the mythology of Meso-America by Roberta & Peter Markman
A Byzantine Journey by John Ash
How I Killed Pluto and why it had it coming by Mike Brown
Half Magic by Edward Eager
Snowden by Ted Rall
A Year of Rhymes by Bernard Cooper
Knight’s Castle by Edward Eager
Digest by Gregory Pardlo
An Age of License: a travelogue by Lucy Knisley
Catamaran Literary Reader Fall 2014, vol. 2 iss. 4
Evening Brings Everything Back by Jaan Kaplinski
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Rick Sings by Phil Taggart
Alone Forever by Liz Prince
Please Excuse This Poem edited by Lauer & Melnick
Displacement: a travelogue by Lucy Knisley
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
Brief History of the Slinky by Andy Warner
Hornblower Proper by R. G. Mandrake
I Have No Idea What I’m Doing by Maggie Ramm
Professor Cuties by Dave Baker
Hotel Bikini by Gilbert Armendariz
The Old Well by Chris Pianki
Butt Planet by Sienna Jane Robrock
Escargoteric by Johnny Herber
Cringe: an anthology of embarrassment edited by Peter S. Conrad
After the Fall: poems old & new by Edward Field
Magic by the Lake by Edward Eager
The Walrus 2010, issue 53
We Shoot Typewriters by Paul Cormen-Roberts
Crazy Child Scribbler Oct 2015, issue 85, guest editor: Tobey Kaplan
Frank by Barney Frank
The Time Garden by Edward Eager
Treasury of Mini Comics, vol. 2 edited by Michael Dowers 
Why We Hate by Jack Levin & Gordana Rabrenovic
A New Time for Mexico by Carlos Fuentes
The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
Talking to Girls About Duran Duran by Rob Sheffield
The Interior Circuit: a Mexico City chronicle by Francisco Goldman
Magic or Not? by Edward Eager
Burning the Midnight Oil edited by Phil Cousineau
Trembling a mini comic by Sarah Adams
Drinking Stories by Amy Burek
A Semblance of Adulthood by Erika Sjule
Coyote Tails by Stephanie Houden
if you’d like to hear it, I can sing it for you: a zine on aging #1 edited by A. L. 
Milk & Carrots #3: the science fiction issue edited by Brian Hernick
I Like Your Headband by Elizabeth Beier
Seven-Day Magic by Edward Eager
Solar System by Marcus Chown
Asswipe #8 by Vanessa X
Little Nemo: return to Slumberland by Shanower & Rodriguez
Irene #6 edited by Andy Warner
Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt
Ruins by Peter Kuper

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Best Poems of 2015

John Ash ….. Partial Explanation
Valerie Berry ….. two women at a small-town foreign film festival
Tadeusz Borowski ….. The Sun of Auschwitz
Matt Cook ….. Carp Gallbladders
Matt Cook ….. Someone to Love Me
Faiz Ahmad Faiz ….. A Prison Daybreak
Jaan Kaplinski ….. “A last cloud moves across the sky …”
Jaan Kaplinski ….. “I was rinsing laundry at the pond …”
Jaan Kaplinski ….. “The sky’s overcast. The warm wind …”
Jacques Prevert ….. Barbara
Tomaz Salamun ….. Long Ago from 7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book
Ksenia Golubovich ….. “The broken ring …” from 7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book
Aleksander Wat ….. Imagerie d’Epinal
Angela Veronica Wang ….. New York Boys I Miss Kissing …

These are the poems I hand copied in 2015. When I read a book of poems I tuck a placemark in next to what poems strike me, those I wish to read again later. When I return to the marked poems and read them and read them once more I decide whether this time in leaving them it will be okay to leave them forever. If it isn’t okay, then I hand copy each one onto binder paper and add the poems to a three-ring binder. These are the best poems of the year. Wouldn’t they be for you?

Of the 14 poems, 9 were written originally in a language other than English. I know these only in translation. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

having new things to think about

Here’s one of those thoughts that I hadn’t had. Sure, I’d heard of phantom limb pain, wherein an amputated arm seems to the amputee still to be there, at least insofar as it hurts. It follows that, if a man has had his penis amputated, then he would not be immune from the pains of other amputees. 

[There are] cases of men whose penile cancer forced them to have their genitals removed. In one study, 60 percent of these men experienced feelings of pain where their genitals used to be, similar to those who have lost a limb. In elective male-to-female sex reassignment surgery, however, where the genitals are removed and refashioned into a vagina and clitoris, there have been no reported cases of ‘phantom penis’ syndrome.

The brain houses a version of the body onto which it maps signals received from the body. If expected signals are missing, the brain can read the absence as a problem and problems are often described as pain. A recent, successful treatment for phantom hand pain involves tricking the brain with mirrors. Show the amputee the existing hand mirrored, making it seem as though the missing hand was as normal as the existing hand and the brain accepts the mirror hand as real, at least long enough to figure out that there isn’t a problem, and the missing signals are dismissed as a non-issue. The pain goes away.

My admittedly incomplete consideration of sex reassignment surgery had not included thoughts of phantom pain from the missing penis. Perhaps the MTF’s brain somehow never mapped the penis as penis anyway? Perhaps the new clitoris and vagina send signals to the brain that are similar enough to the old penis signals that the brain can accept the new arrangement without confusion? Perhaps no MTF wants to admit to phantom penis pain?   

Well, there you are. I have now thought about phantom penis pain in the context of sex reassignment surgery. Which I hadn’t before. 

source: Becoming Nicole: the transformation of an American family by Amy Ellis Nutt

2015. Random House, NY

Saturday, December 26, 2015

another scary scenario

Back in 1859 this happens:
Ships at sea are reporting tremendous blood red ‘auroras,’ shifting curtains of light in the night sky. Compasses are going wild. Telegraph operators are being electrocuted at their own equipment. …
On September 1st, Richard Carrington is observing the Sun from his observatory in Redhill, south of London, when he sees a bright explosion above a group of sunspots at the center of the Sun. Simultaneously, at Kew in London, the needle of a magnetometer goes off the scale. Learning of the coincidence, Carrington concludes a storm has erupted on the Sun … 
The solar ‘flare’ of 1859 was the biggest ever recorded. If it occurred today, says Stuart Clark in The Sun Kings, electrical currents would be induced in power lines and electricity generating stations sufficient to melt them. Satellites, computers, and communications networks would be destroyed. We would be returned to the steam age.

Huh. Has anybody used this sort of flare as a nightmare movie scenario? And what are we doing to protect ourselves? 

NASA sounds pretty sanguine:
[S]cientists at NASA and NOAA give warnings to electric companies, spacecraft operators and airline pilots before a CME [coronal mass ejection] comes to Earth so that these groups can take proper precautions.

OK then.

source: Solar System: a visual exploration of the planets, moons, and other heavenly bodies that orbit our sun by Marcus Chown

Friday, December 25, 2015

Trying to figure out falling

You are on Deimos [one of the small moons of Mars], space suited and bored. You decide to entertain yourself by seeing how far you can long jump. … Back on Earth you can jump a meter vertically. But here on Deimos, a moon with gravity a mere thousandth as strong, you can go 1,000 times higher. [With a running start] you fly so far that the surface of Deimos curves away below you as fast as you fall back toward it. Now you are falling for ever, in a circle. … You have jumped into orbit.

You are falling toward the moon below. You know it’s below because you are falling toward it. But you never fall all the way to it. You never fall all the way to it because it is “curv[ing] away … as fast as you fall.”

I’ve tried to make sense before of the idea that one can fall but never land on anything. It seems to me odd to use the word “fall” if one can’t land. Isn’t “fall” relative? I mean, if you pushed a toy car and it started to go down a slope, the gravity of planet drawing it forward, you wouldn’t say it was “falling.” You’d say it was traveling. Of course, if the slope became precipitous the toy car would certainly began to fall, probably tumbling. Is that it? The lack of control? The absence of impetus? You are drawn toward something beyond your control. You call that falling. 

Author Marcus Chown imagines not only jumping into orbit from the surface of Deimos, but being able to jump all the way beyond Deimos’ gravitation influence and on down to Mars. Given a good enough space suit and parachute (and opportunity) and somebody would do it. 

source: Solar System: a visual exploration of the planets, moons, and other heavenly bodies that orbit our sun by Marcus Chown

Monday, November 30, 2015

more space between the eyes v. shorter foreheads

In a discussion of the long conflict between the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland authors Jack Levin and Gordana Rabrenovic drop this:

[T]he residents of Northern Ireland … stereotype one another, and in physical terms that one might associate only with race. Many Northern Irelanders claim that Protestants are taller than Catholics and have more space between their eyes. They claim also that Catholics have shorter foreheads and larger genitalia.

In America “White” seems to be a category everybody agrees exists. It’s certainly true that once you push them Whites will talk about ethnic differences among Whites. It did use to be that every European country of origin called up distinct types. Yes, Italian Americans still complain about being fingered as Mafia in teledramas and Polish Americans are pricked by Polish jokes. But the main conflict, that between Whites and non-Whites, has so elided differences among Whites that “White Privilege” has been coined to describe all the ways Whites have it relatively good over non-Whites. Are you immediately followed through a store because the owner/clerks suspect you of shoplifting? If you can’t remember this happening to you, you are probably White.

“White” isn’t relevant as a category in Northern Ireland. The quasi-racial physical distinctions between Catholics and Protestants would be so hard to see for an American that we would be baffled to think that the natives themselves saw any. If pressed I have the feeling few Irish could sort a bunch of Irish faces (or genitalia!) into Protestant and Catholic. Yet the differences we see as so minor that we doubt they exist seem to be significant enough to provide evidentiary justification for invidious discrimination in Northern Ireland.

Here in the U.S. we would assert that the differences between Whites and non-Whites are obviously significant. Everybody can easily sort a random group of Americans into the proper categories. Right? Well. It’s likely people with non-European heritage are the beneficiaries of White Privilege if, at a glance, they appear White. But after that things become muddled. It’s just not true that every White person would sort a random group of Americans the same way. We would not all agree which people were White. Would we agree more often than not? Probably. But “more often than not” isn’t much of a recommendation for a distinction, is it? And is there a point non-Whites get a say?

quote source: Why We Hate by Jack Levin and Gordanan Rabrenovic
2004. Prometheus Books

Thursday, October 29, 2015

on the dangers of metaphor

Former U. S. Congressmember Barney Frank takes on metaphor:
As a civil libertarian, I would make few exceptions to the right to free speech. But I admit I’d be tempted to ban the use of metaphors in the discussion of public policy. Metaphors more often distort discussion than improve it. For example, countries are not dominoes; they do not lurch into their neighbors and knock them over if their regime changes. The Reaganite claim that a “rising tide lifts all boats” was also very harmful. People are not boats, and increases in GDP are not a tide that rises uniformly. To fight the metaphor on its own simplistic terms, if you are too poor to afford a boat and are standing on tiptoes in the water, the rising tide can go up your nose. Or, in real terms, the fact that some — even most — people become wealthier may have adverse consequences on those who do not share in the prosperity. In the case of housing, the economic advances that made downtowns more desirable places to live threatened to submerge the existing residents, not float them. It took the government to ensure that good news in the private sector — sharply improved property values — did not become very bad news for low-income people who would have been driven out of their homes.

Metaphors are dangerous. They seem to be basic to the way people think. Yet, as Barney Frank illustrates, metaphors “often distort” reality.

Fighting back against a metaphor can be tricky. You don’t want to do what people do reflexively — you don’t want to argue on the metaphor’s own terms. Barney Frank knows this but can’t help himself. He is clever enough to be able to turn the “rising tide” metaphor from one of benign floating to the danger of drowning. This sort of turn can win an argument. But if you find yourself arguing over metaphor, you are leaving reality behind. That’s not good. And I say that as a poet. Who loves metaphor, especially outrageous metaphor.

“Countries are not dominoes.” We are not talking about boats and tides; we are talking about people and whether they have enough to survive.

It is neither possible (nor desirable) to ban metaphor. But watch out for it, and when you see it, be ready to cut it off at the knees.

source: Frank: a life in politics from the Great Society to same-sex marriage by Barney Frank
2015. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

“all this straight support”

In the 1970s Barney Frank was a closeted state legislator in Massachusetts. He knew he was gay; he’d sought political office knowing he was gay and knowing he would hide it. But, even if he didn’t feel he could be elected as an out gay man, Barney Frank resolved not only never to do anything to harm gay people but to be a forthright advocate once in office.

Says Barney Frank:
I was delighted when the activist Steve Endean was elected to the board of one of the leading liberal organizations in the country, Americans for Democratic Action, as its first openly gay member in 1974. … [When I] confide[d] to him that I was also gay — one of the very first times I admitted this to anyone[, h]is reaction at first disappointed me … ‘Shit,’ he said, ‘you’re the third sponsor of a state gay rights bill to come out to me this year. Here I’ve been bragging about all this straight support we have, but it turns out to be mostly from closet cases!’”

Most hets don’t really think about gays. To them the treatment of gay people doesn’t much matter. Not until the gay rights movement did most hets even realize they counted gay people among their acquaintances. This is not to say the average het isn’t deeply complicit in the policing of gender norms nor the expectation that the people around them behave in a manner that doesn’t challenge what they’ve been led to take for granted.

But the people with passion for a subject usually have a stake in it. The most egregious homophobes are typically battling their own proclivities, demanding society help them to suppress the behavior (even the thoughts) they are sure are unacceptable, sinful, horrifying. The most passionate seekers of justice want to be able to take advantage of the freedoms they see their peers flaunting.

It is certainly true that people without same sex attraction can advocate for equal treatment or demand what they see as immoral be punished accordingly. But it’s exceedingly rare to find people fighting with real passion merely out of principle. This is a truism. Everybody knows it. There are always going to be exceptions. But the person passionately advocating for or against something knows everyone else will, with good reason, at least suspect them of a more than academic interest. It’s long been known among gay people that the most excitable homophobes are queer inside. This assumption has only recently, however, become more general in the body public. Used to be shouting as the nastiest hater was great camouflage. Used to be nobody would think the biggest opponent to fairness would be crying out for that unfairness to be applied to self. That seems so weird.

It’s long been assumed that those most committed to gay freedom want that freedom for themselves, of course. Only natural. That’s why it took courage to push for a good thing that most people considered bad.

One of the unexpected advantages of the gay movement has been this disengagement by the majority. It’s been easy for the majority to agree to keep the gays down because it’s always been so, why change, things are okay as they are, who cares. Yet once gay people started pushing, change came quickly. Het legislators listened to reasonable arguments and figured, well, no skin off my nose, why not, and the first gay rights legislation was enacted.

Change ran into the roadblock of the hulking closets of those who had invested huge amounts of resources in self-denial and hiding. You don’t just abandon bad investments. You defend them, you put more energy into them. Thus the gay movement has, in a sense, been an internal battle. Convention has long favored the status quo and pushback to change was easily mounted.

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled for marriage equality the undoing of that decision will take more work, it seems, than there is passion for. Convention hasn’t overturned completely. Justice is never assured. But the complacency of the majority, the indifference of most hets to gay matters, can be an advantage. Who cares, no skin off my nose. why change, things are okay as they are.

source: Frank: a life in politics from the Great Society to same-sex marriage by Barney Frank
2015. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

“the door is open a crack”

Every night Mike would go swimming in a lake. Some nights he swam out as far as he could. “I kept going. It got colder and colder. And I’d just lie in the lake. And I was trying, it’s really clear now, I was trying to drown. … Ever since, I’ve never felt as tethered to this place as other people do. Everything seems like a long, improbable afterlife.

“What happened on that lake showed me that there’s a door,” he said. “And the door is open a crack. And you can feel it. You can just die. You see? Once you accept that, it brings clarity. You want to do something in the world? Be willing to throw your life away.”

This sort of narrative, the one where the speaker has a new insight into mortality, is common to survivors of dangerous diseases and almost-fatal accidents. You feel immortal, you never seriously consider that you’re going to die, until something beyond your control seizes your attention and turns it toward what, after all, will happen to all of us.

There you are staring into the deathly unknown. You achieve perspective. I’m alive now, you say. If there are things I want to do, people I want to be with, I have to get to it while I’m alive because Death.

Suicide doesn’t lead to this narrative. Not usually. Unlike accident and disease, the killer is not an other, not a foreign agent on the attack. Suicide is a decision we make for ourselves. Suicides are often reviled or, at least, pitied, so piping up about how failing at your suicide made you a more courageous person is, yes, a difficult story to get people to listen to. You face skepticism. You really had to go that far? Didn’t you think what it would do to your loved ones? Arguments. Not the nodding agreement the cancer survivor sees, not the relieved sympathy given the person pulled from the wreck of the flaming mini van.

When one looks at Depression as an often-fatal illness (suicide being Depression’s conclusion), rather than as a character flaw (cowardice! indifference to the suffering of others!), then one will be more open to the insight narrative. Depression itself might be seen as the foreign agent, a medical version of demonic possession, something one can lose a battle to. But does Depression have a hand that can loosen a lid on a bottle of barbiturates? Can Depression buy a gun at a gun show and bullets and load the gun’s chambers?

What are we doing when we know what we’re doing?

The quote’s concluding sentence reminds me of another narrative, a narrative about principle, about sacrifice. In order to live an authentic life, there has to be something for which you are willing to die. Give me liberty or give me death — that sort of thing. Or maybe, I would give my life to save hers. This has been called “altruistic suicide” and has been seen as utterly different from the suicide Mike talks about. The soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his buddies is devoted to life not death, right?

Is Mike entitled to use the narrative of the altruistic suicide? You want to do something in the world? Don’t kill yourself. Unless that’s what gets it done.

source: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
2015. Riverhead Books / Penguin, New York.