Tuesday, June 30, 2009

what Dads like

Steve Martin had a difficult father. Rare was the praise, frequent were the cold rages and seeming contempt. After more than ten years plugging away at his comedy, Martin was finally seeing success that did more than get him out of debt. His father acted unimpressed, even talking his son down around friends and colleagues. “I suppressed everything I felt about his comments because I couldn’t let him have power of my work,” Martin says.

Martin became a household name, was selling out arenas. Father “remained uncomplimentary … [W]hat I did about it still makes sense to me: I never discussed my work with him again.”

My own parents divorced when I was a toddler; I don’t remember them living together. My dad lived thousands of miles away – me, my brother & my mother in Northern California, Dad in Alaska with his new family. But Mom kept us in contact with letters and phone calls and, when we were kids, Dad usually managed two visits a year. So I had a dad – distant but existent, someone I felt a connection to, better, I suppose, than some I hear about who lived in house. Mom would have my brother & me send our creative work to Dad and he acknowledged it and tried not to say belittling things about it even when it wasn’t to his taste – mostly, it seems, it wasn’t.

When my poetry got more & more “avant-garde,” Dad responded by enthusing about cowboy poetry. “That’s what I really like,” I remember him saying.

I have nothing against cowboy poetry. It’s not something I do. It’s not something that interests me, other than in a vague academic sort of way. Oh, Dad likes that, huh? What he doesn’t like is what I do. So I stopped sending him examples. I stopped talking about it.

source: Born Standing Up: a comic’s life by Steve Martin

Monday, June 29, 2009

“I’m not sure what I meant”

Back in 1967 change in the air. Though he claims in his memoir that his studies, philosophy & ee cummings, both fascinated, excited, and baffled him, Steve Martin tried to alchemize from them a fresh new comedy. In a letter to his girlfriend he wrote, “I have decided my act is going to go avant-garde. It is the only way to do what I want.”

Commenting on that 40 year old assertion, Martin notes, “I’m not sure what I meant, but I wanted to use the lingo, and it was seductive to make these pronouncements.”

I suspect we pretend we know what we’re talking about at least as often as we really do. Sometimes that’s a problem. But mostly?

“I have learned,” Martin continues, “there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.”

source: Born Standing Up: a comic’s life by Steve Martin

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

monkey butts

“By the way, paying for porn is no longer unique to humans. Researchers at Duke University offered male rhesus monkeys the chance to see pictures of female monkey bottoms, but only if they paid for it by giving up their fruit juice. The monkeys paid up.”

source: How Sex Works: why we look, smell, taste, feel, and act the way we do (2009) Dr. Sharon Moalem

Monday, June 15, 2009

sex stinks

So I’m reading How Sex Works and I come across discussion of a study on how people respond to body odor, specifically how “four categories [of persons] – heterosexual men, heterosexual women, homosexual men, and homosexual women - ... indicate their preference among odors collected from ‘odor donors’ in the same four categories.”

Let’s skip over the methodology and get right to the rather queer results:

“Homosexual males, heterosexual females, and lesbians preferred odors from heterosexual males over odors from gay males,” the study stated. “Gay males preferred odors from other gay males … Heterosexual males, heterosexual females, and lesbians over the age of 15 (but not those 18-25) preferred odors from lesbians over odors from gay males … Finally, gay males preferred odors from heterosexual females over those from heterosexual males.”

Last I remember reading about odor studies like this the results were of the men-prefer-the-smell-of-women-women-prefer-the-smell-of-men variety, with zero consideration of sexual orientation. I’m glad some scientists are being more open to subtlety and variety. The study’s results, though, what can one say of them? Hm. This deserves more study?

source: How Sex Works: why we look, smell, taste, feel, and act the way we do (2009) Dr. Sharon Moalem

Thursday, June 11, 2009

pile of reading

Swallowdale (1931) Arthur Ransome
I remember a friend of the family (was it the Averas?) gave my brother and me the gift of Swallows and Amazons, the cover of which featured some kids gathered around a campfire dreaming of battling each other over rowboats, or small sailboats. I remember not finding it very attractive. But at some point our mother, who would read to us each night (she got us all the way through the Lord of the Rings trilogy), picked up Swallows and Amazons and I was surprised. I loved it! For a long time I didn’t know Arthur Ransome had written several sequels. When I did find that out enough time had passed I didn’t remember much in detail about Swallows and Amazons so figured I ought to reread it before I turned to a sequel. Well, here I am, 43 years old, and I just reread Swallows and Amazons. Can’t say whether or not I enjoyed it as much this time as the first but I did enjoy it, and the Claremont branch of the Berkeley Public Library where I work has several of the sequels. I have just begun Swallowdale.

How Sex Works: why we look, smell, taste, feel, and act the way we do (2009) Dr. Sharon Moalem
I like pop science books. Some are better than others, of course. There are times I feel like I’m reading about the behavior of middle class college students – so many studies are conducted at universities, and students are cheap and readily available experimental subjects. The more pop science books you read the more you find yourself wondering if this mish-mash of facty material actually collages into a revealing picture or we just pretend it does. I brought this one home because Moalem includes gay people (older books science books on sex either ignored gay sex or disparaged it; many contemporary books treat it rather like a footnote – yeah, gay sex exists, and it’s not sick or evil but, like, I care?). “As any woman who has explored her sexual responsiveness knows,” Moalem says, then interjects a parenthetical before preceding, “(and any man or woman who has explored it with her knows as well), female orgasms come in many different shapes and styles.” Or woman, huh?

Enduring Seeds: Native American agriculture and wild plant conservation (1989) Gary Paul Nabhan
As I push through the collection, weeding out damaged books and books that have been barely touched in the years of sun-fading residence on public racks, I do think to myself fairly often, Looks like a book worth reading. Mostly I talk myself out of checking them out – got plenty to read, thanks! But Enduring Seeds touched on more than one enduring interest – the interaction between animals and plants, traces of Native American history, and the (fragile?) foundations of what we take for granted. I’m not far into it, and already it’s depressing. Written twenty years ago the text anticipates widespread devastation of the environment. Maybe the intervening decades haven’t been as diastrous as anticipated. But I don’t think an author writing a book like this today would be optimistic.

The American Reader: words that moved a nation (2000) edited by Diane Ravitch
This is a selection of poetry, essays, and speeches from early American history to the present. Includes Benjamin Franklin aphorisms, Emily Dickinson poems, Woody Guthrie songs, etc. Just read Ravitch’s severe 4-page edit of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and liked it better than the long version.

The Complete Poems (1981) Anne Sexton
Years ago I read Sexton’s poems in the original books, then bought this complete edition. I enjoyed the first reading and wanted some day to revisit the experience. Doing that. I prefer Sexton’s later messier verse to her early tightly controlled stuff.

Tristes Tropiques (1955) Claude Levi-Strauss, translated by John & Doreen Weightman
Levi-Strauss was an influential anthopologist. I was assigned a chapter of this book in a class in college. I didn’t have time or energy to read more than that. But I hung onto the book. Reading it now, slow, though I like it. Levi-Strauss does surprising stuff like devote five pages to a description of sunset at sea: “[A]t each new stage in its fall, one or other of its rays would pierce the opaque mass [of clouds] or would find its way through along a path which, at the moment when the beam of light appeared, cut the obstacle into a pile of circular sectors, different in size and luminous intensity. At times, the light would be withdrawn, as if a fist had been clenched and the cloudy mitten would allow no more than one or two stiff and gleaming fingers to appear. Or an incandescent octopus would move out from the vaporous grottoes and then there would be a fresh withdrawal.”

The New Yorker May 21, 2007
From the Michael Ryan poem: “Watching you [ghost of dad], / aluminum softball bat drooping like a penis [in my hand], // I’m a cartoon of hurt …”

Scientific American June 2005
The search for extra solar planets continues to find ‘em!