Thursday, December 19, 2013

O Africa!

I am interested in the rest of the world. I have tried to read widely, especially in poetry, serving myself skinny and fat anthologies of poetry in translation from Europe, from the broad expanse of Asia, from Latin America, and from oral traditions. Some literary traditions stretch back hundreds of years - in the case of China and India one might say thousands. When I’ve read in African poetries, however, I’ve been surprised at how shallow in time the traditions are. Considering that humans originated in Africa and have the most diverse genetic heritage there and its current peoples live in a range of societies and environments, I expected more than the Twentieth Century. But when we’re talking sub-Saharan Africa we are talking primarily about oral literatures, it seems. Publishing African poets didn’t really build literary careers until the last hundred years, the majority in the last fifty. I was also surprised how often the poets I was encountering spoke of “Africa,” as though it were a unity, rather the way poets in the U.S. speak of America. Africa is not a unity. It is huge and various. So why were poets from up and down the continent claiming one identity?

Last year I copied out a poem by Bernard Dadie called “A Wreath for Africa.” Dadie was born in the Ivory Coast (between Ghana and Liberia in West Africa). He wrote in French. Some lines (as translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy):

I shall weave you a wreath
of laurel and hibiscus
set in a butterfly’s wingspan
and the calm of underbrush in blossom.

… from the essence of flowers
with pendants of human life and wisdom.

I shall make you a crown
softly gleaming
with the brilliance of Tropical Venus
and in the orb of the feverishly shimmering
Milky Way.

I shall write
your name
in letters of
O Africa!

The anthology in which I found the poem was The Negritude Poets. Negritude is a francophone way of saying “blackness.” The poets weren’t just extolling Africa’s singular identity, they were self-identifying by the color of their skin. Other literary traditions tend to sort by nation-state and language. Africa encompasses many states, many languages. But the written languages were primarily introduced from Europe. The Negritude poets mostly wrote in French.

The Poetry of Our World: an international anthology of contemporary poetry includes a section of African poets. In his introduction Kwame Anthony Appiah offers his version of why the poets were talking about Africa (not Cote d’Ivoire, say):

It is one of the great ironies of history that the concept … the very idea of Africa - was itself a product of the encounter with European empires. Western-educated intellectuals articulated a resistance to colonialism not in the name of the specific precolonial societies whose heirs they were, but, almost always, in the name of Africa. The many colonial students gathered in London, Paris, and Lisbon in the years after the Second World War were brought together in their common search for political independence from a single metropolitan state. They were brought together too by the fact that their colonial rulers - those who helped as well as those who hindered - saw them all as Africans, first of all, because ‘race’ was central to Europe’s vision of them. But they were able to articulate a common vision of postcolonial Africa through a discourse inherited from prewar Pan-Africanism - a discourse that was the product, largely, of black citizens of the New World. Since what bound these African-American and Afro-Caribbean Pan-Africanists together was the African ancestry they shared, a racial understanding of their solidarity was, perhaps, an inevitable development.

Because the colonial powers were defining Africans by race/color - by “African-ness” - the poets, in order to find strength in solidarity and because they shared a common oppressor/ enlightener, also chose to define themselves by race and to embrace as homeland a unitary Africa. The Africans of the diaspora, “African-American and Afro-Caribbean Pan-Africanists,” had led the way. They already had been writing in European languages so had an older literary tradition. They already defined themselves primarily by color/race and by ancestral origin; because they often had little idea of where exactly in Africa their ancestors had come from these poets didn’t have much choice, it was all Africa. Of course, the Pan-Africanists already defined themselves by race because in the cultures into which they were born their whole lives were defined by race. Sure, you could deny and reject that identity but the larger society - White European Society - would still see you first by your skin. Also, of course, the Pan-Africanists had already produced a literature of resistance to European hegemony and African-born Africanists had a natural sympathy for this tradition.

So I get it a little better. I suspect the paeans to “Africa” will be fewer as time goes by, as national and language-centered native literatures develop, but Africa had a unity imposed upon it, and for the emerging poets of that continent embracing unity proved more useful/fruitful - and in some cases, beautiful - than ignoring it.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

“Sign Language is so beautiful!”

John McWhorter, in discussing the proposition that “language channels thought,” that because some languages seem to be better at expressing certain kinds of thoughts, then the people who speak these languages are able to think thoughts that others, handicapped by less artful languages, cannot, addresses the romanticization of “minority languages.” Some languages are supposedly purer or more spiritual, closer to the authentic, more natural, as though these languages retain the sheen of the Golden Age. This idea can be called “Whorfian” after the linguist Benjamin Whorf who claimed that the Hopi language was especially suited to a healthy Zen attitude because in that language there is no way of talking about time. Everything happens in an eternal now. John McWhorter says Whorf clearly didn’t know Hopi. Hopi marks time all the time.

A speaker of American Sign Language captured the essence of how Whorfianism unintentionally demeans minority languages, mocking outsider fans of Sign. In an interview, the signer feigned ‘a vapid, rapt look on his face. “Sign language is so beautiful,” he signs, in a gushing mockery of the attitude that exoticizes sign and correspondingly reduces deaf people to the status of pets, mascots. “It’s just so wonderful that deaf people can communicate!”’ Or, as I would have it, ‘It’s just so wonderful that people who aren’t like us can think and process reality as richly as we do!’

I think American Sign Language is beautiful. I don’t feel weird about saying so. It’s clear to me as well that Deaf people are people and can think and communicate. I’m glad they can do it in a manner I find transfixingly beautiful. Maybe they don’t care that I find it beautiful. Whatever. I’ve resisted the notion that there are spoken languages that sound lovelier than others. But I’ve come around. I’d rather listen to a Brazilian speaking legalese than a German uttering sweet nothings, a Francophone pontificating over poetry recited in Hebrew, as much as I don’t understand any of it. Once we come to meanings I’m sure my mind would change. Idiosyncratic ear (or eye) aside there is no language that can’t express beautiful thoughts. There is no language that limits the mind it inhabits, making categories of thoughts unthinkable. At least, not according to John McWhorter. I’m inclined to believe him.

source: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: the untold history of English by John McWhorter

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Since English already has an example of a pronoun that is used both as a singular and a plural and used that way in grammar so proper even the snootiest grammargendarme prescribes it (I’m talking about you, of course), I don’t see why we can’t allow that sort of use for another pronoun. Everybody knows that using he or she in order to make sure there is agreement in a sentence feels tiresome and awkward, especially when speaking. Yet it is conventionally considered the best alternative when looking to de-gender the generic. “Everybody loves to kiss his or her lover!” Please. “Everybody loves to kiss their lovers!” Everybody is supposed to be a singular, according to the grammar logic crowd. But everybody knows that in real life, outside the textbooks, it’s a plural. “Everybody get out your textbook.” That’s grammatically acceptable, isn’t it? “I want everybody to get out their textbook.” Not correct! No? Pooh on that. “I asked for a wheat-back penny. Suddenly everybody was looking through their change.” I’m grammar-sensitive enough to wonder if sentences where a “their” sounds natural in speech could or should be rephrased when written. “Suddenly you could hear the jingle of change as every hand dug through their stash.” Oops. Did it again. “Suddenly everyone was looking through his or her coins.” “Suddenly all the kids were digging through their change.” Functionally, “all the kids” and “everybody” are equivalents. We treat them that way in speech. I think we ought to treat them that way in writing. English has a very formal neuter - one. “One ought to know one’s mind.” It sounds a bit off, a bit British, even. And using one that way has its problems, too. “One was standing on the platform when the train arrived.” One was? One what?

In Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue John McWhorter looks to see if there’s any their there:

Take the idea that it is wrong to say If a student comes before I get there, they can slip their test under my office door, because student is singular and they ‘is plural.’ Linguists traditionally observe that esteemed writers have been using they as a gender-neutral pronoun for almost a thousand years. As far back as the 1400s, in the Sir Amadace story, one finds the likes of Iche mon in thayre degree (‘Each man in their degree’). … Shakespeare is not assumed to have been in his cups when he wrote in The Comedy of Errors, ‘There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As I were their well-acquainted friend’ … Later, Thackeray in Vanity Fair tosses off ‘A person can’t help their birth.”

McWhorter has been asked, if this use of they/their/them is so appropriate why don’t linguists use it themselves? It’s the copy editors, he says. “[E]ven linguists have to submit to their publishers’ copy editors’ insistence on expunging it … At best I can wangle an exception and get in a singular they or their once or twice a book.”

It may still be that books are copyedited by human beings, but most of the writing on the internet clearly isn’t. No copy editor touched this post, for instance. Other than me, and I don’t claim the title.

source: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: the untold history of English by John McWhorter

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Legion of Decency

I didn’t grow up in an era in which “decent” meant bowdlerized. By the time I was an adventurous reader explicit condemnatory censorship was relatively muted and powerless.

It helped that my mother made no attempt to restrict what my brother or I would read or try to prevent us from going to scandalous movies - not, at least, once we were old enough to seek them out for ourselves. But then there was more available by the 70s than there was when my mother was a girl because organizations like the Legion of Decency could no longer prevent work they found objectionable from being published and distributed. The first naughty stuff I bought was in the form of underground comix. As a kid I wasn’t attracted to the sexy, but the anarchic and psychedelic was appealing. Loved The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, for instance.

As I read up on the situation for readers before I came along, I feel increasingly fortunate. The historian Lillian Faderman talks about how lesbians could only appear in fiction if portrayed as damaged, criminal, fated to come to a bad end; otherwise stories featuring lesbians fell afoul of organizations like the National Organization for Decent Literature and the Legion of Decency. When I came across mention of the “Legion of Decency” it sounded, frankly, like a supervillain group. Of course, independent and underground cartoonists were lampooning just such groups and I didn’t realize that the joke was actually pretty serious. As far as I was concerned “decent literature” was literature that was competently written rather than literature that had been neutered. Lucky me for thinking so.

source: Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: a history of Lesbian life in Twentieth-Century America by Lillian Faderman

Thursday, December 12, 2013

notes toward an autobiography by others, part 15

Donovan Hohn became fascinated by the story of the well-traveled rubber ducks. A shipment of the toy was lost in the Pacific and the little critters floated all around, some (perhaps) even making it all the way across the Arctic Sea to the Eastern shores of the United States. Hohn wanted to find one for himself. In the process he wrote a book about the ducks, where they came from and what became of them. It’s called, Moby-Duck. Early in his research Hohn consults beachcombing guides:

[Amos] Woods writes … [A] “serious searcher plans his hike, selects the tide and wind conditions that are favorable, prepares for an extended trip, and has a particular objective in mind.” [On the other hand, Henry David] Thoreau’s rambling style of beachcombing - extravagant sauntering, he would call it - appeals to me far more than Wood’s forensic treasure hunting does. If I tried to follow Wood’s advice, I wouldn’t last a weekend before retiring my metal detector to that cabinet of fleeting enthusiasms which also contains various musical instruments, a teach-yourself-Russian CD-ROM, and a guide to bicycle repair.

When Kent and I visited Oahu in September we saw two men using a metal detector on a popular beach. They were wading in water up to their thighs. It was hard to imagine they were finding enough of value to justify two people but it looked like they were being methodical about it. The beach adjoined a wealthy community, the water protected by a wide reef, and was picturesque, so I suppose there were more than the usual number of diamond rings slipping off fingers into the sand and a better than average chance of locating those that got lost. It looked like work.

I remember seeing men walking along with metal detectors at beaches when I was a kid. It looked like fun at the time - hunting for treasure! scooping up money just waiting for you! I may have put a metal detector on my Christmas wish list. I remember working over the page that featured the object in the Montgomery Wards catalog. I remember working over the page that featured the rock polishing machine, too. Imagine turning ordinary rocks into gleaming, smooth beauties you could line up on your window sill. Mom did not get me either gadget.

Just as well. I shudder to think how many hours of beach plodding I would have had to force myself to do in order to justify the metal detector’s expense. It was easy to picture the delights, but the work of the process I now picture as a big hassle. I remember at least once Mom approaching one of these treasure hunters (probably dragging me along); as I recall he was philosophical about it. It was something to do. Did it pay? Oh. No. Not really. He found something while we talked, leaned over and brushed the sand away. Was it a penny? It was no diamond ring.

Like me, Kent had a hankering for a polishing machine. Unlike me, he got one. My memory produces no plan beyond admiring the polished stones. That gets old, Kent says. And the polishing machine was noisy. It required investment in polishing sand. It took a long time.

Among other “fleeting enthusiasms” was, yes, a teach-yourself-Russian book (this was before CD-ROMs). I taught myself DA (yes) and DOM (house) but I figured I wouldn’t be able to make myself understood by a Russian as I didn’t really know how to pronounce any of it. Not like I would be able to understand them, either! I thought I might be able to take Russian language classes in college. But by then the Cold War was over and learning Russian seemed not so valuable, especially considering the investment of money, time, and effort. Instead I took Spanish and Portuguese and American Sign Language, all of which I’ve had occasion (very occasional occasion) to use.

I’ve made attempts at making music - I have an electronic keyboard which sounds rather nice. Maybe nicer when I’m not playing it.

Extravagant sauntering, however, has provided much pleasure over the years.

Donovan Hohn's Moby-Duck is quirky, rather long & rambling, and a pretty good read.

quote source: Moby-Duck: an accidental odyssey: the true story of 28,800 bath toys lost at sea and of the beachcombers, oceanographers, environmentalists, and fools, including the author, who went in search of them by Donovan Hohn

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

pile of reading

Orange Sunshine: the Brotherhood of Love and its eternal quest to spread peace, love, and acid to the world by Nicholas Schou
This is a story of naiveté, chutzpah, idealism, entrepreneurship, criminality, spiritualism, and, uh, other stuff, I'm sure. A bit dizzying.

The Elephant Whisperer: my life with the herd in the African wild by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence
I like animal stories. It's strange and unfortunate that most human Africans haven't ever seen a live elephant. Most human Americans have never seen a live bison, I suppose. Anthony owns a private wildlife reserve in South Africa. The elephants native to the area have long since been hunted out or driven away. The book tells the story of his bringing in an elephant family from another reserve. Sadly, these elephants have been traumatized by human contact - just before being brought to Anthony's reserve a mother & child in the group are shot and killed because the mother was supposedly uncontrollable and dangerous.

Moby-Duck: the true story of 28,800 bath toys lost at sea and of the beachcombers, oceanographers, environmentalists, and fools, including the author, who went in search of them by Donovan Hohn
This book has won a bunch of awards for pop science writing. It's in the Claremont Branch collection and, being as I work there, I am trying to read more of the books that are in the Claremont collection. The book is the sort of thing I like, a mix of detective story and the personal story of the detective, along with musing about what it all means. It jumps around, tackling different aspects of the bath toy saga, so I don't always feel pulled along but sometimes adrift and caught in gyres. I'll finish it, and I expect I'll recommend it, but I only read a little at a time.

Native American Testimony: a chronicle of Indian-White relations from prophecy to the present, 1492-2000 by Peter Nabokov
Like all anthologies, a mixed bag. Nabokov says he avoided the soaring oratory of the Chiefs, seeking instead to reflect the experience of the average person/Indian. Actually, I was rather hoping for some soaring oratory. Recommended if you like oral history collections, Studs Terkel, for instance.

Staying Alive: real poems for unreal times edited by Neil Astley
Neil Astley is editor/publisher of Blood Axe Books in the UK. I've enjoyed books he's published. And I like poetry anthologies. There's good writing here. But it hasn't hooked me.

The Horizontal Poet by Jan Steckel
Last weekend I read with Jan and a few other poets as part of The Whitman-Stein Poetry Fest North. I traded a copy of Fact for Jan's newest book and added it right to the pile by the bed. "the click and rattle / of your metacarpals dragging over / my fibula and tibia"

The Unsubscriber by Bill Knott
A few years ago I picked up a self-published chapbook by Bill Knott. This one, however, is from a New York publisher. Knott's interesting and kind of odd. "your dress tries to come in / from the rain it has become: / the way shelter finds us one again"

Death Kick by H.D. Moe
The poet H.D. Moe died this year. I've always found his poetry a mix of wonderful and awful with enough wonderful to keep me attentive. I bought a couple of his books in the last few years. When I heard Moe died I started in on this one. I'm reading it the way I did Emily Dickinson, two pages at a time. "Ley-lines, wakeup different, heading for a giggle job, keys in your claw"

The Poetry of Our World: an international anthology of contemporary poetry edited by Jeffery Paine
Lots of familiar names - Derek Walcott, Pablo Neruda, Anna Akhmatova, etc.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

radio on poo

Birds and bats produce feces called guano, which is rich in ammonia, uric, phosphoric, carbonic and oxalic acids … Bat and bird guano were discovered by Europeans in the early nineteenth century to be … useful for both fertilizer and explosives. … Guano was … taken up on Gemini and Mercury space missions and was used as the propellant to deploy the radio transmission antennas after splashdown.

In my post Kill a Whale for the Moon I quoted a source saying sperm whale oil was used to lube machinery sent to the moon. It's nice no bird or bat had to die for their part in the space program.

source: The Origin of Feces: what excrement tells us about evolution, ecology, and a sustainable society by David Waltner-Toews

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Napolean's racism fix

What was to be done so that these peoples, so different, might live in good intelligence? … Napolean [thought that] men [sh]ould each marry two women of different color. Then the children of this double marriage would be raised together and, in spite of the difference in color, they would become accustomed to living together and would consider themselves equal.

Actually that's what happened in practice wherever slavery was an institution, masters begetting children from more than one woman and of more than one color. However, because the mothers were not considered equal the children were not considered equal. The kids may have played together, but they were raised on two tracks. Kind of like boys and girls, you know? O Napolean, keep thinking!

The quote is from Jean Descola's Les Messagers de l'Independence as it appears in an endnote of German Arciniegas's America in Europe: a history of the New World in reverse.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Best Poems of 2012

These were the poems I read in 2012 that I did not want to leave behind. I copied each out by hand and added it to a loose leaf notebook. The notion that there is any such thing as an objective "best" is dubious, but that shouldn't stop you from judging and declaring. I say, you know what's best! I read these all in 2012 so they're the best of what I read that year, what worked for me "best" of all; I expect them to continue to reward in years to come.

I read through more than 57 sources. Books, mostly. Some magazines. I can't keep track of everything. If I happen upon a poem online or pick up a book and sample, but the poem doesn't win me, that "source" is not going to be noted. 40 of the 57 sources are not represented by a poem in this list. I read anthologies, literary magazines, and the collections of individual poets. In 2012 I read through Denise Levertov. I have a poem or two of hers in an earlier list. Whenever I've come across Levertov's poems I've thought well of them so I looked forward to a full read. I expected I would copy out more than the two I did. Reading Levertov was worthwhile but I don't think I need to do it again.

The source from which I took more poems (10) than any other was an anthology of haiku. That's happened before. I like haiku and haiku anthologies contain a lot of individual poems. I don't know that, as a proportion of poems read, I copy out more haiku than poems in longer forms. Can't say that I've not made much of an effort to quantify that, though.

I thought I'd already posted this list, I try to get my "Best" list posted in the new year, but thinking so didn't make it so. Some people like lists like this. I'm not a big list maker, but the list is already made. I here expose it.

Ernesto Cardenal ….. "Prayer for Marilyn Monroe"
Chisoku ….. "The Dragonfly"
Bernard Dadie ….. "A Wreath for Africa"
Connie Deanovich ….. "Porno Stars with Tuberculosis"
Paul Guest ….. "Melancholia"
Gyodai ….. "Autumn"
Issa ….. 4 haiku
Dale Jensen ….. "In the Beginning"
Dale Jensen ….. "Its Elegant Steel Cage"
Daniel Jones ….. "A Cold Ear of Corn"
Daniel Jones ….. "Fried Chicken"
Roberto Juarroz ….. "Life Draws a Tree …"
Orhan Veli Kanik ….. "The Guest"
Koyo ….. "The Good Neighbor"
Denise Levertov ….. "For a Child"
Denise Levertov ….. "Souvenir d'amitie"
Majid Naficy ….. "Night"
Onitsura ….. "Onitsura's First Poems (age 8)"
Rebecca Radner ….. "So there he was in the freezer"
Rebecca Radner ….. "There's nothing that wrong with me"
Juan Ramon Jimenez ….. "Oceans"
Shiki ….. 2 haiku
Alastair Reid ….. "Lo Que Se Pierde / What Gets Lost"
Kenneth Rexroth ….. "Autumn Rain"
Tomas Santos ….. "A Wish" *
Shinkei ….. 2 haiku
Nishiyama Soin ….. "Composed for a memorial service"
Tchicaya U Tam'si ….. "Agony"
Tchicaya U Tam'si ….. "The Scorner"
John Yau ….. "Footfall"
John Yau ….. "Medusa"
John Yau ….. 4 selections from "One Hundred Poems"
John Yau ….. section 3 from "Scenes from the Life of Boullee"

* the Tomas Santos poem was copied out in 2013 and misfiled, so I've crossed it out here; look for it in the 2013 list

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Notes toward an autobiography by others, part 14

I often copy a poem I particularly like, getting it into my fingers and thus, in a small way, into my body. Memorizing is the true way to get a poem into the body, but I'm poor at it.

That's Cynthia MacDonald, from what she shared of her notebooks in The Poet's Notebook: excerpts from the notebooks of contemporary American poets edited by Stephen Kuuisto, Deborah Tall, David Weiss.

Every time I do up a post about the poems I've copied out in a year I talk about the impetus and the method, so today's post has a redundant feel. I was just checking to see what I said this year about "The Best Poems of 2012," and surprised myself by discovering I'd said nothing! I didn't do a post about 2012? Really? I guess that's my next task. Let me quote what I said last year:

I keep a stack of placemarks ready whenever I’m reading poetry. If a poem strikes me just right, I pop a placemark into the book so I can revisit. If, after several rereadings, I decide it’s a poem I don’t want to leave behind, I hand copy the poem and slip it into a 3-ring binder. I’ve been doing this for about 24 years so I’ve got some fat binders.

Cynthia MacDonald emphasizes the physical nature of the poem - getting it into the fingers, getting it into the body. When she gets it into her mind, lodges the poem there via memorization, that, for her, is physical, too. Mind as part of the body, mind as more "true" body than fingers!

The first of my teachers who put body and poem together for me was Richard Speakes. I'd always thought of poetry as word play - sort of out of body - but Richard talked about getting blood in the poem, talked about the poem's meaty nature, how we feel what the poem is trying out inside us. I think this idea helped my poetry.

At UC Berkeley Robert Hass talked about a poem as breath sculpture, the poet directing the shapes and actions of our vocal cords, lungs, the way one uses air.

Cynthia MacDonald's notion that copying a poem out by hand intensifies the connection with the poem by making the poem not just intellect but motion - dance? - is different but not dissimilar to thoughts I've had about the process of handcopying.

The first poems I copied out I typed. I wanted the poems to look good, as they might appear in a publication. But they didn't look good, and the typing was no pleasure. Rarely was I able to produce a page that escaped splotches of correcting fluid. I switched to handcopying and instantly felt a greater connection to the poems. These weren't just poems that I liked, these were poems I claimed. I was writing them myself! I was physically incorporating them into my body of work. When I reread them it was clear I had written them; after all, I really had. I don't manage flawless copying. Sometimes I crumple up the page and start over. But even when I make a little correction it feels more acceptable than when I have to correct a machine version. It's still in my handwriting, just like an original poem from one of my notebooks.

I've read that one of the excuses plagiarists use is that they didn't realize that what they found in their own handwriting in their own notebook wasn't originally written by them. They will claim that they did a lot of research and occasionally made the mistake of not being clear enough in their process which thoughts were found elsewhere. "I wrote it," they will say. "It was in my handwriting." (Not sure I buy it. But I have a certain sympathy.)

I have made efforts to memorize poems. I still have chunks of Blake's "The Tyger" in my head, and Coleridge's "Xanadu." I can't quite get the whole poem out in the right order these days, but the lines are fun. I don't know that, per MacDonald, memorizing is any truer than any other way of taking a poem in. But I will say that I have read and reread the poems I've copied out and have come very close to memorizing many of them just through familiarity.

Now I better work on writing up "The Best Poems of 2012."

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"a hole and silence"

Two quotes from The Poet's Notebook:

Mary Oliver: "Language, the tool of consciousness."

Charles Simic: "To be bilingual is to realize that the name and the thing are not bound intrinsically. It is possible to find oneself in a dark hole between languages. I experience this now when I speak Serbian, which I no longer speak fluently. I go expecting to find a word, knowing that there was a word there once, and find instead a hole and silence."

Language is not thought. We use language to translate thought to ourselves and others. All translation is fraught with error, yet we get our thoughts and needs communicated pretty well. It may be that we do this somewhat better than all other species and that relative success may be why we are currently the planet's dominant life form. On the other hand, there was a great expanse of ages in which humans used languages well and managed not to become Earth's dominant life form, an expanse of ages far greater than that occupied by what we call civilization. Maybe our victory is pyrrhic. The end of the (human) world has been predicted regularly over the millennia. One day one of those predictions will be spot on?

I haven't enough facility in a language other than English to evaluate Simic's particular kind of "hole and silence," but I encounter similar geography. My own searches are most obvious when I'm trying to pull up the name of a celebrity. When the blankness stymies, I start naming a star's movies in hopes whoever I'm talking with will be able to get to the name before me - or that this circling will reveal the name from a new angle.

source: The Poet's Notebook: excerpts from the notebooks of contemporary American poets edited by Stephen Kuuisto, Deborah Tall, David Weiss

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

a lot and a little

Only 2,050 of the 97,751 albums released in 2009, or 2.1 percent, sold over 5,000 copies.

That's David Byrne in his book How Music Works. He got the numbers from "SoundScan via Billboard," he says.

Byrne is discussing the economics of recording and how many copies of an album you have to sell in order to earn back what you spend on making it. There are cheap lo-fi methods - like playing a guitar and singing into a boombox, which is the way some people have done it - and John Darnielle, for one, says, "[I]t sounds great … I look at it more like food: You can't say there's a best food. Foods taste different …" If you go with something like that you won't need to sell a million copies - or even 5,000 - but if you want your album sales to pay your rent - or if you want to hire a sound engineer or pay somebody to play alongside you - or maybe just want to earn enough to get started on a new recording, well, it ain't gonna be easy.

97,751 albums were released in 2009. That's a lot. Isn't it? I wonder what that number includes. Church choir recordings? Poetry readings?

A lot of books are published each year, too. Few authors sell enough copies to say they're making money off their work. That's the way it is. I shouldn't have been surprised to see the same thing in album sales. We don't hear that many songs on the radio, do we? We hear a handful and we hear that small batch over and over, especially as the years go by and only so many hits of the 60s, 70s, 80s, can shoulder open their three minutes on the oldies stations.

I gave three readings this summer and fall, trying to promote my new book, FACT. Over those three readings I sold a total of ONE copy of the book. It's not expensive. I got several compliments on my reading style. I do enjoy performance and it's nice to be praised. But nobody had to pay admission to the readings; it would've been nicest if the appreciation shown included buying a book. I haven't set a goal of breaking even. I tried to, once upon a time, but I learned that that's not going to happen. Not with what I write - what I like to write - what I will continue to write because it rewards me - that the rewards are not money is what it is.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

you complete me

"Yours is not to complete
the work, but neither are you
free to abstain from it."

-- Rabbi Tarphon from the Pirket Avot (2:21), via Joel Lewis

as found in the Anselm Hollo section of The Poet's Notebook: excerpts from the notebooks of contemporary American poets edited by Stephen Kuusisto, Deborah Tal and David Weiss

I've come across this quote three times recently. The first time I copied it into my own notebook. The second time I researched it a little to get the context and found it less interesting. There are different translations on the web. According to Joseph I. Gorfinkle's Sayings of the Jewish Fathers, the most complete version I found, Rabbi Tarfon says, "It is not thy duty to complete the work, but neither art thou free to desist from it; if thou hast studied much Torah, much reward will be given thee; and faithful is thy Employer to pay thee the reward of thy labor; and know that the grant of reward unto the righteous will be in the time to come.”

The shorter (& more popular) version of Tarfon/Tarphon's words has resonance for the non-Jew in that it places the individual in the context of a community, a communal effort, acknowledging the effort that is not decisive, but admonishing the worker not to give up just because the completion of the task (if there ever will be such) may fall to another. It assumes there will be continuity, posterity. It tells you that you are not alone in your efforts and that success does not depend solely upon you. I found the sentiment touching, reassuring.

Though I have no particular thoughts on the labor over Torah or rewards in the "time to come," I do find the shorter quote worth attention. There is not much we complete, really. Even when a finite object, like a car or a beautiful vase, is the goal, something that seems as capable of completion as anything can be, the goal achieved becomes but one point in an ongoing process. We are not complete in ourselves. We are processes, we are phenomena. We do not exist but in the midst of others, a world both human and not. This may be less true of a car or vase, which, once set, does not grow and change but without its context neither has a purpose. We took on tasks left incomplete by others. People who will take on our tasks will likewise help give meaning to the work already done, continue it, and, in a way perhaps, complete it.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Podkayne on Oz

I'd heard that Robert Heinlein was an Oz fan but it still surprised me when I came across such an extended take on that fairyland as this passage in Heinlein's novel Podkayne of Mars:

It occurs to me that my most vivid conceptions of Earth come from the Oz series - and when you come right down to it, I suppose that isn't too reliable a source. I mean, Dorothy's conversations with the Wizard are instructive - but about what? When I was a child I believed every word of my Oz tapes; but now I am no longer a child and I do not truly suppose that a whirlwind is a reliable means of transportation, nor that one is likely to encounter a Tin Woodman on a road of yellow brick.

Tik-Tok, yes - because we have Tik-Toks in Marsopolis for the simpler and more tedious work. Not precisely like Tik-Tok of Oz, of course, and not called "Tik-Toks" by anyone but children, but near enough, near enough, quite sufficient to show that the Oz stories are founded on fact if not precisely historical.

And I believe in the Hungry Tiger, too, in the most practical way possible, because there was one in the municipal zoo when I was a child … It had always looked at me as if it were sizing me up as an appetizer.

Heinlein writes in the voice of Podkayne, a teenage girl, born and raised on Mars, as she is looking forward to her first visit to the planet Earth.

The Oz books are still doing just fine, 50 years after Robert Heinlein wrote those words. The other day I saw two girls at the library where I work, checking out Oz books. "Good choice," I almost said.

Heinlein's book reads well, too. I would recommend it. In one scene, presciently, a character telephones another, then pockets his phone, while in a later scene Poddy's younger brother resorts to a slide rule to make orbital calculations. A pocket-sized phone but not a pocket-sized calculator? Well, I guess the pocket-sized phone suggests Podkayne of Mars is "founded on fact," while the persistence of the slide rule suggests it is "not precisely historical."

Classic science fiction tends to have the sexual politics of 1950s America - something that rather puts me off. Podkayne expects to be a professional, like her mother, but by the end the novel has cast some aspersions on that choice for a woman. The book is not an anti-career woman screed, and I found Podkayne a convincing version of teenage girl, from her ambitions to her doubts to her chatty storytelling, but Heinlein ends up just shy of sounding feminist.

Before I wrap this up I want to highlight one other Oz mention. In a scene set on Venus Podkayne is exhilarated at being courted by a rich local: "I felt like Ozma just after she stops being Tip and is Ozma again."

That's a provocative (sexual) transformation to refer to.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

does your language sound like a cat fight?

Robert A. Heinlein:

German sounds like a man being choked to death, French sounds like a cat fight, while Spanish sounds like molasses gurgling gently out of a jug, Cantonese - well, think of a man trying to vocalize Bach who doesn't like Bach very much to start with.

That's Heinlein writing in the voice of his character Podkayne in the novel Podkayne of Mars.

Now and then I think about how one might go about creating a course in recognizing languages. What does a language sound like to a person who understands none of it?

I hadn't thought of characterizing languages in quite Poddy's way. But it might provide a way to get students going. Maybe on the first day of class play snippets of each of several languages and ask the students to come up with metaphors to describe them.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Ugly Dog on the Spine

When the editor of a new anthology of mini comics asked my brother David Lee Ingersoll which of David's many self-published mini comics should be the ONE that appears in the anthology, David turned to me for my opinion. David said he would prefer to suggest an issue of The Davey Thunder / Jack Lightning Show, the series we co-created.

Thunder & Lightning were radio DJs we invented back in junior high. A friend who volunteered at a college radio station invited us to join him for a few shows and just being ourselves would have been too boring so we came up with characters. David was Davey Thunder; I was Jack Lightning. We added an elf and a dragon, because why wouldn't we?

When, many years later, David got to publishing his minis, caught up in the indie zine ferment of the 80s, he asked me to bring back Thunder & Lightning. He was already writing & drawing two other series -- Cheap Thrills (featuring horror stories a la EC) and The Highly Unlikely Adventures of Moe & Detritus (which continued life as a full-size comic called Misspent Youths) -- and he wanted to produce something else, something he didn't have to write. We got a few issues done before David burned out. It's not like he was making money on this stuff, right?

When the prospect of the anthology came up I got out the old issues of The Davey Thunder / Jack Lightning Show and reread them. I liked 'em! But which to recommend? They build on each other, but as stand-alones seem pretty slight. Except for "The Ugly Dog of Heaven," which is also the wordiest. I didn't want to recommend the one that was all full of writing, even if it was my writing. I wanted to recommend something that used the comics form best. Besides, Thunder & Lightning themselves hardly appear in the story. Finally, I told David what I was thinking and he said he was inclined toward "Ugly Dog," too. So. We went with "The Ugly Dog of Heaven."

The Ugly Dog of Heaven is an angel, presumably. It patiently listens to people's troubles. It looks mangy and has watery eyes and has little wings growing out of its shoulders.

The video above features hands flipping through the Treasury of Mini Comics, vol. 1, edited by Michael Dowers, published by Fantagraphics Press. When the hands close the book and turn the book so you get a good look at the spine you will see the Ugly Dog of Heaven at the bottom of the spine. That's quite a reveal! The designer snipped the Dog from the cover of The Davey Thunder / Jack Lightning Show.

You can buy directly from the Fantagraphics website.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

grammar to the last

When I read in Alicia Ostriker's "Elegy Before the War" the following lines:

… Very little pain, lucid
Almost to the end, correcting
People's grammar
A week before
She died

I remembered this from a friend's letter (she had been attending her ailing mother-in-law):

the death was “expected” and, of course, she was old (91) … Brilliant woman.  Coherent right to the end.  She corrected [granddaughter] on her grammar the day before!

poetry from No Heaven by Alicia Suskin Ostriker

Saturday, September 14, 2013

remote viewing

If you could see trails of light left behind by the photons that are crisscrossing the room in front of you right now, they would be heading in all directions, constantly passing through each other without noticeable effect In that one room (or for that matter in your backyard if you're reading this outside) there will be visible light heading in all directions as it reflects from objects all around you.

And with all that light, somebody sees you.

I happened to be reading Brian Clegg's book while I was sitting on the back porch overlooking the backyard. Clegg saw me in his imagination. And, for a moment, it was weird, I felt I was being observed.

source: Before the Big Bang: the prehistory of our universe by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

tunneling, without passing through

You know that the sun's energy comes from fusion power, right? Atoms of hydrogen are squeezed so tightly together by the sun's gravity that they fuse and that releases a lot of energy which blasts out in every direction. The surface of the earth is warmed by this energy.

Do you know the mechanism, what brings about this fusion? Hydrogen atoms, even when pressed tightly together, don't fuse. They repel. As Brian Clegg puts it:

[E]ven in the pressure and temperatures present in the Sun, there isn't enough energy to overcome the repulsive force that keeps protons apart.

Protons make up the nucleus of the hydrogen atom.

It is only because of one of the oddities of quantum physics that stars work at all. Quantum particles like protons don't have an exact location … Each particle is spread out over a range of locations, with a different probability of being in any one of those locations.

While protons repel each other, being positively charged, they have this quantum feature of being in several places at once, even "so close to another proton that they can fuse before they bounce away from each other."

The repulsive force is so powerful that a proton cannot breach it except when it happens to be right on top of another proton, which "has a low probability of occurring," Brian Clegg says, except that "there are so many protons in the Sun that it's happening all the time … When nuclei fuse together the result is a small loss of mass which is converted into energy."

So, if you're following, protons are so powerfully repelled one from the other a proton in one atom cannot approach a proton in another atom. A proton must randomly occur at the particular point in its "range of locations" that happens at that moment to be occupied by another proton. Clegg calls this "tunneling," that is, a proton has appeared on the other side of a formidable barrier "without," he says, "passing through that … barrier."

Such an event is highly unlikely. It happens all the time.

source: Before the Big Bang: the prehistory of our universe by Brian Clegg

Monday, September 09, 2013

Glenn Ingersoll - September 2013 readings

Sept 13, Friday, 7pm
with Rebecca Radner
and an open mic
at Caffe Nefeli
1854 Euclid Ave, Berkeley
between Hearst and Ridge, at UCB's Northgate

Sept 15, Sunday, 12noon
with Jamie Asaye FitzGerald and Kathleen Winter
part of the Petaluma Poetry Walk
at Riverfront Art Gallery
132 Petaluma Blvd N, Petaluma
between Western and Washington, downtown

Sunday, September 08, 2013

haole vs. aloha

This is a nice discussion of the Hawaiian word "haole":

"Haole"[,] some Hawaiians believe[,] is a sort of antonym of "aloha"[.] "Haole" is a word predating Western contact and can be used to describe nonnative plants and animals as well as people. Still, there's a popular myth that the derivation comes from the phrase for "without breath," ha being the word for breath. (As in "aloha," which can be used as a greeting or a farewell or to indicate love but literally means "the presence of breath" or "the breath of life.") This "without breath" interpretation of the word "haole" was supposedly applied to Western visitors because they refused to engage in the traditional Polynesian greeting in which two people touch noses and embrace while breathing each other in.

Breath is considered sacred in some cultures. I'm reminded of Joseph Campbell's discussion of the Hebrew word for God, which can be written YHWH; Campbell noted the resemblance of the name of God to that of an inbreath and outbreath.

In typing the quote I remembered that the "Western visitors" Sarah Vowell is talking about came to Hawaii from the East. White people came to the Americas from the East, too. In that sense all Europeans are Easterners to the New World and Polynesia. Europeans became "Westerners" by virtue of being West of China and India, the two civilizations greater than all of Europe after the collapse of Rome, at least until Europe discovered the New World and began to feed on it.

source: Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Saturday, September 07, 2013

kill a whale for the moon

I don't know what to say about this.

[The] use [of whale oil] as a lubricant impervious to extremes in temperature persisted well into the space age -- NASA lubed its moon landers and other remotely operated vehicles with sperm whale oil …

I mean, it's amazing that whales produce this stuff in their bodies and that our techno cleverness wasn't able to produce an improvement -- only the law making commerce in whale products illegal ended NASA's use of whale oil -- but it's cool in the way that executed prisoners supplying donor organs is cool. That is, I don't know that it is.

source: Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

"all the dreck you could ever want"

Having started with the ancient world, describing the ways the words of olden days have managed to come down to us - and the many ways they've failed to make it - Nicholas Basbanes moves on to a discussion of the contemporary world, not just how much more writing (information?) is being created but how easily and quickly this new stuff is being lost. There aren't many books, no matter how old, that we can't read. (There are some.) But information storage systems invented and used for important purposes just in the last few decades grow less and less accessible every day as technology changes. Much of what hasn't ended up in the junkyard already is running out of experts competent to keep it running. Or budgets to pay for its retention.

Blogs started out as lists of links, I understand. There's a lot of neat stuff scattered about the web, but how do you find it? Those who loved to search would post their finds in weblogs (name shortened to "blog"). In that spirit and with the sense that frequent hyperlinks would enrich my own writing, when I started DIR I often included links to more information. Over time (and not much time) I saw these links dying. In my December 2005 post about the poetry of Dorianne Laux, for instance, I talked about one of her poems and linked to a complete version posted elsewhere. The link no longer leads to the poem. Instead of enriching my writing, linking elsewhere seemed to be hobbling it. To keep my own posts readable over time (if only to me) I decided to make them self-contained. I put up fewer and fewer links. I will still link in order to provide credit for something, as in the word of the day posts of the last month where I hyperlink to the definition source. But I no longer expect that a reader will be able to rely on the links.

Basbanes' A Splendor of Letters was published in 2003, ten years ago. In this paragraph he describes one attempt at preservation:

[A] nonprofit company based in San Francisco known as the Internet Archive is using a network of sophisticated "crawling" devices to download copies of every web page that has been publicly posted on the Internet since 1996. … [T]he Internet Archive has been gathering Web pages and storing them in tape drives the size of two soda machines, each capable of preserving 10 terabytes of data … about one half of the contents of the Library of Congress. … [The] long-term goal is to "preserve our digital heritage." To do that … it is necessary "to capture all the dreck you could ever want." … [T]he average life span of a page on the World Wide Web is seventy-five days, a circumstance that explains the frustration so many "surfers" feel when their attempts to log on to a targeted site is met with an "Error 404" message, a gentle way of saying that the page no longer exists …

I've used the Internet Archive. It's still around - ten years later! I wonder if they have more soda machines.

That Dorianne Laux poem, "Aphasia," can be found if you grab the link from my 2005 post and enter it in the Internet Archive Wayback Machine then follow the Archive calendar back to its 2005 visit. Click on the hyperlink in the preceding sentence and you will be transported.

The Internet Archive Wayback Machine now provides the only access to my old website, the first LoveSettlement.

source of quote: A Splendor of Letters: the permanence of books in an impermanent world by Nicholas A. Basbanes

Saturday, August 31, 2013


I've gone through all my Dare I Read posts and added labels. A few years ago I started appending labels to posts as I wrote them. There remained a few hundred posts without labels. Gradually I've remedied that.

I kept the labels pretty generic. As of today there are 216 posts labeled "poetry", 142 labeled "gay", 109 labeled "writing", and so forth. There is, of course, overlap. Including this, one there are a total of 893 posts. The meta category, to which today's post belongs, is not one of the more interesting.

There's fun writing in Dare I Read. I hope you will explore some of it. The full list of labels is down the page in the right hand margin.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

word of the day: pleonastic

context: "[I]t was then that I perceived my future in a strange backward glance … [A]n account of the next two weeks of our stay in Positano seems pleonastic and irrelevant."

definition from Princeton's WordNet: repetition of same sense in different words; example sentence: "`a true fact' and `a free gift' are pleonastic expressions"; synonyms: redundant, tautological

my thoughts: it wasn't easy to give this word context as the context sufficient to garner meaning fills up a page or more. Our hero meets a girl and instantly develops an intense infatuation. She never reciprocates. The two weeks he and his father spend visiting with the girl's family merely play out the details of what our narrator recognized in essence at the moment of introduction - his overwhelming desire and her chipper indifference.

source:The Worst Intentions a novel by Alessandro Piperno, translated by Ann Goldstein

Monday, August 26, 2013

word of the day: oblatory

context: "What did the Sacrifice consist of? Placing before her own interests - always - those of others. An oblatory delirium, because this was the life she had chosen: to occupy herself full time with her unreasonable parents, her hypochondriac mother-in-law, her maladjusted children, her homesick Filipino maid," and so on. "She was always reaching out and available, like a punching bag …"

definition from the free dictionary: from Oblation: The act of offering something, such as worship or thanks, to a deity; a charitable offering or gift.

my thoughts: The mother's a martyr, always giving of herself, always ready to slight her own comfort to assuage the distresses of others. She is never properly recognized for this Sacrifice, of course. The son (& narrator) finds Mother's giving of herself to be dysfunctional, maybe even a mental disorder, a delirium.

source:The Worst Intentions a novel by Alessandro Piperno, translated by Ann Goldstein

Sunday, August 25, 2013

word of the day: viaticum

context: "[L]evity can sometimes be the prelude to indifference. And indifference, in turn, the viaticum for disaster."

definition from Merriam-Webster: a) an allowance (as of transportation or supplies and money) for traveling expenses; b) provisions for a journey

my thoughts: I guess the "indifference" makes one oblivious to the signs of impending "disaster", thus making that disaster unavoidable. If you don't take things seriously, if you blithely disregard, when the bad overtakes you, you will be surprised, of course, but you had your chance. Indifference as "viaticum", then, is indifference feeding the disaster, bringing it forth.

source:The Worst Intentions a novel by Alessandro Piperno, translated by Ann Goldstein

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Notes toward an autobiography by others, part 13

As a grade schooler, I always found read aloud exercises excruciating to sit through. Breezing through a paragraph or two and dropping back into my seat was never a problem for me. Then as now, however, I found the public struggles of other kids forming words such as "education" and "exceedingly" both heartbreaking and a waste of time.

Like Chuck Thompson I found reading aloud in class no sweat. When other kids struggled, sweating out one word after another, halting, hesitating, stumbling, I just wanted to take over. I enjoyed reading aloud. It was an opportunity to perform - with an audience! Besides, I thought surely the kids who were struggling would get more out of the text if it were voiced with life and passion. I know I enjoyed being read aloud to. I was happy that my sixth grade teacher read us books chapter by chapter, and by sixth grade I had no problem reading novels without my lips moving. I thought it great stuff that my mother read aloud the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy to me and my brother even after we both could read it for ourselves (my brother already had).

Listening in class to that struggle to push out words was a torture. If it was a torture to me, I thought it must be painful for them. For whose good was it?

source: Better Off Without 'Em: a Northern manifesto for Southern secession by Chuck Thompson

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

word of the day: obols

context: "Pericles built these piles to Athens' glory. // Her gleam, so that her democratic harbor / MIght welcome tourists from all Asia Minor / Afloat with awe and obols."

In the poem "The Figure of Metaphor" Alicia Suskin Ostriker describes a visit to Athens, particularly the "footsore" climb to the Acropolis "jostled and shoved by more / Hasty sightseers." Ancient tourists were similarly drawn by the spectacle - and, Ostriker suggests, similarly "rob[bed by] foreigners." But she's a good sport about it, as, she suspects, were the ancient tourists. "Perhaps the town was truly civilized," she muses. "[F]rom each jukebox tenors croon of love."

definition from a silver coin of ancient Greece, the sixth part of a drachma.

source: The Crack in Everything poems by Alicia Suskin Ostriker

Monday, August 12, 2013

try to catch a library in your hands

In the early hours of August 25, 1992, Serbian nationalist soldiers nested in the craggy hills surrounding the besieged city of Sarajevo trained their artillery pieces on a graceful building that for four decades had functioned admirably as home to the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Shortly after 10 p.m., the gunmen opened fire with a barrage of incendiary shells from four elevated positions … [W]ithin minutes the architectural landmark … was spewing flames … Hampered by low pressure in the water mains, firefighters watched helplessly … Fueled by fifteen thousand meters of wooden shelving and a collection of books estimated to have numbered 1.5 million volumes, the fire smoldered for three days …

That's just one of the many acts of violence visited on books and libraries in the 20th century. In language poetic and tragic Kemal Bakarsic, a librarian of the nearby National Museum, remembers the scene:

[B]ecause there was no wind, the leaves of the books were floating very slowly. And really, you can capture a leaf in your hand, and you can read it before it disintegrates. The text is black, the background is gray, you can feel the heat, and the instant the heat goes into your palm, it all melts. But there is a moment where you have a final chance to make out a line or two, a word or two …

I tried to catch as many pages as I could …

source: A Splendor of Letters: the permanence of books in an impermanent world by Nicholas A. Basbanes

Sunday, August 11, 2013

a life story unlike mine

Let's say you came across this bio:

Ana Mendez: a Spanish woman from a Jewish family who became a voodoo priestess in Mexico City and converted to Christianity while in a mental asylum. Leader of identification repentances all over the world.

Would you know what to make of it?

source: A Voyage Long and Strange: rediscovering the new world by Tony Horwitz

Saturday, August 10, 2013

pile of reading

The Worst Intentions by Alessandro Piperno
This novel was in the browsing paperbacks collection at the Claremont branch of the Berkeley Public Library. I curated the collection for a few years. When the library closed for renovation the browsing paperbacks were deaccessioned - that is, they were largely tossed out. I understand a few were transferred to the Branch Van (don't call it a Bookmobile) that traveled to the neighborhoods most affected by the branch closures. I kept a few of the deleted books at my desk and read them during coffee and lunch breaks. I knew nothing of Alessandro Piperno when I found the book in donations (the source of the majority of the browsing collection), but the book was in good condition and I am all for giving Americans a chance to read non-American lit. I held onto The Worst Intentions for my own reading because it passed my spot-check test. If I'm considering reading a book I flip it open and read a random passage. If that strikes me, I read another. No more than a page. You don't want to spoil the full read. Worst Intentions is fun. It's more a stitching together of character portraits than a plot. When the character is fascinating, the reading is a blast. When the character is not, the reading can be … not so fun. When the first person narrator talks about himself, he reminds me of the protagonist of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. Perhaps not coincidentally the protagonist says he's written a book about Roth.

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth
Yes, I'm also reading Portnoy's Complaint. I've been reading it rather a long time. On and off. It appeared on my last pile post. I'm about 30 pages from the end now. My evaluation of it hasn't changed. The fussing, the grandiosity and sense of inferiority, the strained jocularity. Now that I think about it, the novel, like The Worst Intentions, stitches together many fictional portraits. Unlike the other novel, however, the voice doesn't change from character to character.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
This one has been in high demand at the library and I've seldom seen a copy unspoken-for. When one passed through my hands last week I decided to give it a go. I'm a fan of pop science writing and the sort of real life detective story that has a researcher chasing down leads in dusty archives and interviewing relatives. The writing has life and quality. Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman who died of cancer. A sample from a tumor was taken and became the first human cell line that was successfully cultured in the lab. The HeLa cell line lives on, more than sixty years after Ms Lacks succumbed to the disease. The cells have been used in all sorts of ways, one of the earliest being in the testing of polio vaccines. When Rebecca Skloot first learned about Henrietta Lacks as an undergrad she wondered who this woman might be. Eventually she set out to uncover her story - and the story of what survives.

A Splendor of Letters: the permanence of books in an impermanent world by Nicholas A. Basbanes
Incredible stories about how the tales of antiquity came down to us - or failed to. Equally incredible stories about their ongoing vulnerability. And somewhat numbing tales of how we try to save our contemporary words.

Autobiography of a Book by Glenn Ingersoll
This is a manuscript. It got written down a few years ago. We've privately bound a couple copies so that Book can be a book, fulfilling its dream, at least somewhat. Now that some time has passed since the writing I'm able to enjoy Book's voice and see what Book is doing without being worried that I might be called on to improve it or defend it.

Voices from Wah-Kon-Tah: contemporary poetry of Native Americans edited by Robert K. Dodge and Joseph B. McCullough
Published in 1974 this anthology reads as a reaction to the American Indian Movement and its revival of pride in Native American life and culture. Sort of surprising that the date isn't 1964, but, like the LGBT civil rights movement, the American Indian Movement needed the example of the African American civil rights movement to gain traction, both within a fractured and disempowered community and in a larger culture that long had had difficulty in seeing clearly the First Nations that live within it. "At the edge of the fluctuating / sea of watercolors / Sat a lavender kitten. / Its fur glinted from an oscillating / ray of pink. / Quivered gently at the touch of a / swirling blue breeze." - Alonzo Lopez

The Poet's Notebook: excerpts from the notebooks of contemporary American poets edited by Stephen Kuusisto, Deobrah Tall, and David Weiss
I've read the poetry of most the poets here (Marvin Bell, Rita Dove, Stephen Dunn, Alice Fulton, et al). I'm glad I'm reading their notebooks with some sense already of their finished work. Alice Fulton's section is my favorite so far. I like her poetry, too.

Gulf Coast: a journal of literature and fine arts, winter/spring 2012
This also appeared on my last pile list. Hm. When was the last time I read a page?

Thus Spake the Corpse: an Exquisite Corpse reader, 1988-1998, volume 1: poetry & essays; edited by Andrei Codrescu and Laura Rosenthal
I got a few of my FACT poems published in Exquisite Corpse. I also ended up in the Body Bag, the column that listed all the hopeful contributors who'd been rejected - and often teased them. When I was casting about for an anthology to add to the pile I pulled this one from the shelf. I'm currently breezing through the essays.

The Volcano Sequence by Alicia Suskin Ostriker
I've added Alicia Ostriker's poems to my ongoing personal anthology. (See The Best Poems of 2008, for instance.) Now I'm working my way through all her collections. I enjoy her style most when she allows herself to be silly.

Two Lines: world writing in translation, vol. 15: Strange Harbors edited by John Biguenet and Sidney Wade
A sampler of world lit, mostly contemporary.

Poetry Speaks: hear great poets read their work, from Tennyson to Plath edited by Elise Paschen and Rebekah Preson Mosby
Not an anthology that breaks new ground. Since recording technology is a phenomenon of the 20th century, that's what you get here. I've just been reading so far. I haven't read an anthology so built around the consensus American "greats" in, oh, quite a long while, so it's interesting seeing what that is again. I think I'll go all the way through the book before turning an ear to the CDs; three come with the book.

The New Yorker, March 23, 2009
At the rate I read The New Yorker I'm always years behind. That's fine. I enjoyed the Roland Burris profile. Roland Burris was appointed to fill out the Illinois senate seat Barack Obama vacated upon being elected president. It's not like I was going to read about the man in depth, but I admit I was curious enough to read seven pages in The New Yorker.

Friday, August 09, 2013

how the human body was like a tree

[I]n 1735, the primary meaning of the English word 'inoculate' was still 'to set a bud or scion,' as apple trees are cultivated by grafting a stem from one tree onto the roots of another. … [I]n England [inoculation against disease] was often accomplished by making a slit or flap in the skin into which infectious material was placed, like the slit in the bark of a tree that receives the young stem grafted onto it. … [In other words, one was] grafting a disease, which would bear its own fruit, onto the rootstock of the body.

This was before germ theory when there was much uncertainty as to what exactly it was that brought on disease. In the case of smallpox, however, it had long been observed that milkmaids who contracted cowpox seemed to escape the worse disease. If you intentionally introduced cowpox to the body, the less dangerous disease would be induced, and the body would in future be protected from smallpox.

It sounds reasonable, more or less. But I imagine the prospect of grafting a disease to oneself was a frightening affair. The much better tested and far less risky vaccines we use today still manage to scare many silly.

source: "Sentimental Medicine: why we still fear vaccines" by Eula Bliss, Harper's, January 2013

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Let me here thank Oxyrhynchus

Virtually every known verse written in the seventh century B.C. by the lyric poet Sappho, to cite the most prominent example, derives from fragments of her work recovered at Oxyrhynchus; according to one Oxford papyrologist working on the trove today -- only 5 percent of the fragments have been translated over the past century -- the woman's erotic verses were considered too scandalous by medieval monks to copy, and would have been lost entirely if not for the scrap heap of Oxyrhynchus.

Oxyrhynchus was an ancient Egyptian town long lost to the desert. It was rediscovered late in the 19th century when farmers harvesting soil from the site "came across fragments of papyri," some of which were then offered for sale "in the street bazaars of Cairo." Oxford scholars organized a dig. Twenty years of effort returned to Britain "fifty thousand papyrus fragments from the sandy pits, many of them lying thirty feet below the surface."

Most of the fragments are pretty tedious, I'm sure. Tax records, intergovernmental communications. Mustn't those working to translate the scraps try to keep awake by looking for things of more interest, like a poem, say? Maybe there's not another line of the old girl left to find, but I like to imagine it. Sappho's a favorite of mine; I'd be happy to hear another few lines have been rescued from the abyss.

In his A Splendor of Letters Nicholas Basbanes describes the fortuitous recovery of many ancient texts that otherwise were allowed to go out of print by those who copied and kept available what in their era was considered worth reading. Rubbish heaps are a good source, it seems. Which actually makes encouraging the reports that landfills are so anoxic that items tossed into them don't break down. I mean, the archaeologists of the next millennium may find Fresh Kills a more fruitful archive than anything we've made real efforts to preserve.

source: A Splendor of Letters: the permanence of books in an impermanent world by Nicholas A. Basbanes

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

word of the day: muniments

Pliny noted that before the Egyptians figured out how to make writing surfaces from the ubiquitous marsh plant, they experimented variously with 'palm-leaves and then on the bark of certain trees, and afterwards folding sheets of lead began to be employed for official muniments, and then also sheets of linen or tablets of wax for private documents.'

definition from Merriam-Webster: the evidence (as documents) that enables one to defend the title to an estate or a claim to rights and privileges — usually used in plural.

source: A Splendor of Letters: the permanence of books in an impermanent world by Nicholas A. Basbanes

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Japanese killer balloons of World War II

The Japanese called the balloons fusen bakudan. Thirty-three feet in diameter, they were made of paper and were equipped with incendiary devices or high explosives. In less than a year, nine thousand were launched from a beach on Honshu. They killed six people in Oregon, five of them children, and they started forest fires, and they landed from Alaska to Mexico and as far east as fifteen miles from the center of Detroit.

During World War II the Japanese used balloons as weapons? Really? Wild! They even killed people with them. On the U.S. mainland. No surprise that "papers were asked not to print news of them." Scary enough to listen for bombers buzzing in the sky, but a silent, slowly drifting attacker that could fall upon and destroy you purely at random? Sounds like — Terror! In a New Yorker article John McPhee says the government wanted the story kept quiet so the Japanese wouldn't find out about their success.

And I have to say the fire balloon campaign's strangest success — or near miss, rather — would be the balloon that caught "on a high-tension line carrying power to the reactor" at the secret Hanford installation, "the reactor that was producing the Nagasaki plutonium." The reactor was temporarily shut down.

source: "Checkpoints" by John McPhee, The New Yorker, February 9 & 16, 2009

Monday, August 05, 2013

notes toward an autobiography by others, part 12

from John Updike's short story, "Falling Asleep Up North":

There is a surreal trickiness to traversing that in-between area, when the grip of consciousness is slipping but has not quite let go and curious mutated thoughts pass as normal cogitation unless snapped into clear light by a creaking door, or one's bed partner shifting position on the remarkably noisy sheets. The little fumbling larvae of nonsense that precede dreams' uninhibited butterflies are disastrously exposed to a light they cannot survive, and one must begin again, relaxing the mind into unraveling. Consciousness of the process balks it; the brain, watching itself, will not close its thousand eyes. The brain, circling in the cell of wakefulness, panics at the poverty of its domain -- these worn-out obsessions, these threadbare word games, these pointless grievances, these picayune plans for tomorrow which yet loom, hours from execution, as unbearably momentous. Life itself, that agitation of electrified molecules, becomes a captivity, a hellish endless churning, in which one is as alone as Satan, twisting and turning and boring a conical hole in the darkness, while on every side the wide world gently, blessedly snores.

This is a lively, lifelike evocation of the experience of falling asleep, what I sometimes call "negotiating." Sleep often is standoffish and has to be courted. Somehow. The contradiction is much as Updike describes it -- the mind can't talk itself into sleeping, the more attention paid to the goal the more frustration at its receding from the grasp.

Updike (at least in the excerpt) does not explicitly express envy at the triumph of the sleeper nearby. I think it's implied, though. Early in the passage Updike blames "a creaking door" and "noisy sheets" for interrupting the descent toward sleep. Again there is the self-restraint; he holds back blaming that innocent snore for his own failure to fall.

Because translation to sleep is so tricky for me I almost always have to do it alone. Once my body's had some practice I can switch over to the other bed, the bed where the beloved breathes under sleep's gentle guidance. We both, then, may enjoy the unconscious under the single sheet.

I found the passage in a collection of excerpts published in The New Yorker of February 9 & 16, 2009 celebrating Updike's many contributions to the magazine.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

must we change the world again?

from "Poetry Is" by Charlie Kapsiak:
A poet is like someone telling a story
but in a language with concealed meaning
and where every word has importance
and its own meaning
and with each poem a poet writes
they can change the world

I think the poet Kapsiak has something here.

source: What the World Hears: California Poets in the Schools 2009 Statewide Anthology edited by Michael McLaughlin, Alexa Mergen, and giovanni singleton

Saturday, August 03, 2013

every memory in its place

Rigoberto Gonzalez writes about memory:

My grandmother used to say that in order to remember a thought, she had to go back to the place where that thought was originally conceived because place triggers her memory.

I find that there are certain thoughts I have in particular places. When I'm on the mat at the gym doing my stretches I've noticed that a certain thing often comes to mind. Because I'm not on the mat at the gym right now - I can't remember what it is! (And, no, the thought has nothing to do with exercise.)

source: Butterfly Boy: memories of a Chicano mariposa by Rigoberto Gonzalez

Friday, August 02, 2013

just muster one tenth of that for a finer world

Grant Morrison discussing the people who said mean things online about one of his comics stories:

One outraged reader even confidently predicted that I would, someday soon, be brought to account for the 'evil' that I had done. For a comics fan scorned, it seemed, the measure of evil lay not in genocide or child abuse but in continuity details deliberately overlooked by self-important writers, of plot points insufficiently telegraphed, and themes made opaque or ambiguous.

If only one tenth of the righteous, sputtering wrath of these anonymous zealots could be mustered against the horror of bigotry or poverty, we might find ourselves overnight in a finer world.

Hm. You think?

source: Supergods: what masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human by Grant Morrison

Thursday, August 01, 2013

word of the day: bolshy

context: "[Author Warren] Ellis's [super]heroes would happily cut off your head and beat you to death with it if that's what it took to keep you from being a dictator or a 'bastard.' These hombres meant business … These bolshy new superheroes spoke for all of us in the counterculture … It felt like we'd won."

definition from the free dictionary: obstreperous - obstinate, stubborn, unregenerate - tenaciously unwilling or marked by tenacious unwillingness to yield; from Bolshevik, a revolutionary or radical.

The word is a Britishism. Grant Morrison is a Brit, so that makes sense.

I'm not sure I can characterize what Morrison means when he says it felt like "we'd won." Down the page from the above quote Morrison says, "The twenty-first century would surely see the triumph of our sci-fi ideals along with the death of grim, old, outmoded power structures, and [Warren Ellis's] The Authority spoke for that dream." Tres bolshy?

source: Supergods: what masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human by Grant Morrison

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"to traffic freely with angelic forces"

I'd read about the cross-dressing berdache tradition of shamanism, and decided I could do a glossy, chaos magic, nineties version of that as a way of shaking out my identity and becoming my own complete opposite. A few fetish-wear catalogues later, and I'd assembled a shiny disguise … The clothes and makeup allowed me to transform into a female alter ego I now created to stand in for me during the darker magical operations I was undertaking. … [T]he 'girl' was smarter and more courageous and could more easily negotiate with and fend off predatory 'demonic' entities. … Dressed in black vinyl with six-inch heels, showgirl makeup, and a blond wig, I began to traffic freely with angelic forces …
That's Grant Morrison in his memoir / essay on superheroes, Supergods: what masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

maybe I should get some endive

I’ve heard of this “super-taster” business, that some people have such sensitive tongues that there are foods they can’t get down. I think I was in a biology class in which the teacher brought in what must have been propylthiouracil so the students could find out for themselves how super their tasting was. Which is to say, if I was, I was absent that day.

Rachel Herz provides the service:
The way I assessed sensitivity to bitter taste was by having participants place a little piece of paper dabbed with a compound known as propylthiouracil (PROP) on their tongue. PROP is medically used in the treatment of thyroid disease, and the ability to taste PROP is an excellent genetic indicator of your sensitivity to bitter and taste sensations in general. If you find a little taste of PROP as being equivalently bitter as staring at the sun is bright, then you’re a “super-taster.” If you think PROP tastes bitter but you can live with it, you’re a “taster,” and if you’re perplexed as to what all the fuss is about, you’re a “non-taster.” Without having to take a PROP test, if you won’t eat endive because it tastes horribly bitter to you then you’re likely a super-taster.

I don’t remember whether I’ve ever tried endive. It’s probably easier to get ahold of than PROP. On the other hand, do I already know? Beer is bitter but most people can get swallow after swallow past the lips over the tongue and down. Not me. Hand me a beer and you can watch my bitter face emerge, even to a slight reflexive shake of the head. I have tried many different beers and ales, usually prefaced by the offerer’s assertion that this is a really good beer, hardly bitter at all, rich, complex, satisfying. I have never finished even a single glass. I got halfway through a bottle once or twice. It took me an hour or so. “If you drink enough, you won’t notice the taste,” a brother promised. I never succeeded in drinking enough. I can enjoy a select few wines (hello, Chardonnay), and will get buzzed on those yummy tropical fruit drinks where you can’t taste the alcohol, but, beer aside, I seem to find most alcohol unpalatable. The buzz is nice. Being drunk, however, makes me stupid and clumsy, negating qualities I prize. So I’m not bemoaning my aversion.

Am I a super-taster? I still don’t know. Whether my tongue is special as regards discrimination among fine foods, I’m not clear on either, frankly.

source: That’s Disgusting: unraveling the mysteries of repulsion by Rachel Herz

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

a haiku by David Lippu


First snowstorm romp . . .
Her puppy’s wet kiss
Froze on my sister’s glowing cheek.


David Lippu


The above appears in Miracles: poems by children of the English-speaking world, collected by Richard Lewis. The anthology was originally published in 1966. David Lippu’s age is given as 13, his place of origin the United States. That would make Mr Lippu 60, give or take, should he be alive today. (A Google search turned up nothing.)

It’s a sweet poem, with just a hint of threat. The air must be darn cold if a little slaver of dog spit can freeze on a warm cheek. Of course, “froze” could be poetic license. Maybe it just felt really cold, freezing, you know. Still, I think that’s what makes the poem, the sweetness of the puppy, the play, the affection – and the mild sense of threat, of the harsher, greater world in which this play is enacted.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"if one could redesign the past"

It would be convenient if one could redesign the past, change a few things here and there, like certain acts of outrageous stupidity, but if one could do that, the past would always be in motion. It would never settle down finally to days of solid marble.
-- Richard Brautigan, from An Unfortunate Woman: a journey.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" Video Annotated

"Girls Just Want to Have Fun" Video, starring: Cyndi Lauper
Director: Edd Griles

[0:01] The interiors were shot in the summer of 1983 at a studio in the East Village called Mother's.

Cyndi Lauper's mother plays the mother. "When I asked my mom to be in the video, I said, 'Mom, just think of what this could mean if you're involved - then you and I will make it popular to be friends with your mom.'"

[0:07] "The aesthetic I was going for," says Lauper, "was Screaming Mimi's." Screaming Mimi's was a used clothing store in New York where Cyndi Lauper explored her fashion sense. "Laura Wills, the owner, was styling my clothes for the shoot. That store really inspired me. ... It had humor, it had wildness, it had sexiness, it had the old-movie vibe ... that modern, cutting-edge thing where you mix elements together that would never have been mixed together" in other eras.

Lauper says, "[T]here are a lot of elements of [Jacque Tati's] style in" the video's visuals.

[0:15] The dog she dances past was her own. The dog walker is Rick Chertoff. "For that part," Lauper recalls, "I was inspired by a scene in [a] Sophia Lauren movie where she comes dancing down the street in Naples in the fuckin' early morning light with her shoes slung over her shoulder. ... I went down to the West Village where there would be cobblestone streets, like in the movie." The street is Gay Street.

[0:44] "I wanted the kitchen to be very fifties. We couldn't really afford wallpaper - it was really a low-budget shoot - so I brought in a tablecloth from Screaming Mimi's that had a pattern I liked, and the art director ... painted the walls like that."

[0:50] Captain Lou Albano, a pro wrestler, played Cyndi Lauper's father. Lauper says she met Albano while she was in the band Blue Angel. She and Albano were sharing a flight home from Puerto Rico.

[1:08] "When I pick up the phone backward and then turn it around, it's because I had seen a David Bowie piece somewhere, where he had a phone receiver upside down and then put it right-side up. I thought, 'Yeah, that's a good idea.'"

[1:12] "[W]e got a whole bunch of my friends and family to be in the video. ... [B]eauticians from Vidal Sassoon [were in it, including] Justin Ware, who did my hair for the shoot. I knew everybody at Vidal Sassoon because I was a hair model there ... in 1975 or '76 ... The hairstyles were art pieces. ... [W]e had the beauticians ... secretaries from Epic [the music label], the girls from Laura's shop, Myra from the Japanese place where I had worked, and this black girl we cast who looked awesome with her dreads. ... I told Edd that we had to have multiracial people too. At that time everybody who was in videos was either all white or all black."

[2:07] For a scene by the fountain in front of the Metropolitan Museum "all of us were lined up, Francis the cameraman used a Steadicam that he owned, and I took all my sunglasses that I had gotten at Screaming Mimi's over the years and handed them out, so everybody put on a pair. ... I brought all my makeup to the shoot, too, and ended up getting pinkeye because all of us shared everything."

[2:53] The man with a handlebar mustache is Lauper's laywer, Elliot Hoffman.

[3:39] Cyndi Lauper's younger brother Butch delivers pizza.

[3:46] "Steve Forbert [is] holding flowers."

[3:49] "Joe Zynczak, who was [one of] my manager[s] was the waiter in the bedroom." Note the tray of dishes on the left.

[4:17] "I had a friend named Bonnie Ross who was a nurse, and she was there dressed up in her uniform." Note stethoscope.

Cyndi Lauper says she went into the editing room and saw that some scenes hadn't made it into the initial cut. "I was literally sitting with Pam [the editor] and pulling strips of film from a bin. I changed a few shots around with her, and all of a sudden it was moving better ... I only did it because I wanted my video to move the way it should move, because it was about music - and I know music."

All quotes (and all information) are from Cyndi Lauper: a Memoir by Cyndi Lauper with Jancee Dunn, published in 2012 by Atria Books/Simon & Schuster.

Monday, March 04, 2013


They sat there in their striped fishermen’s shirts and the shorts they had bought in the store that sold marine supplies, and they were very tan and their hair was streaked and faded by the sun and the sea. Most people thought they were brother and sister until they said they were married.

That’s from the posthumously edited and published novel The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway.

Kent and I are often mistaken for brothers. Or twins! African American strangers seem more prone to declaring us twins. All white men look alike? We both have curly hair (his black and thinning, mine is brown and graying) and beards and we’re pretty nearly the same height and of a similar build. He’s heavier, but, no, I’m not skinny.

What’s funny is that the strangers are delighted, as though they’ve surely won a prize by figuring out our relationship. A week ago we walked into CVS. The African American woman at the cash register grinned and called out, “Twins!” I thought she had such a lovely smile. And I laughed. I shook my head, saying nothing else, and laughed as I headed down an aisle.

A couple years ago when I was visiting Kent in the hospital, I accompanied him as he walked up and down the hall in his robe, pushing along the bag of intravenous fluid on its pole. An African American man visiting his family came upon us and asked if we were twins. “Here you’ve caught us in our twin outfits,” I said.

If the acquaintance is likely to be more than just strangers passing I will say something further. The young Asian woman at the produce mart asked if we were brothers and I said, “No, but we are married.” And I pointed to my wedding ring.

I’ve wondered if this happens to straight people. When I came across the passage quoted above I said to myself, yes, I guess so.

On the other hand the observation is also a foreshadowing of the young woman’s transformation in the novel. She is beautiful, we are told, but also boyish, and in a way that remains incompletely explored she has ideas about being a man, and makes efforts to transform her husband into her twin. Perhaps Hemingway was never able to explore this gender confusion to his satisfaction so did not produce a version of the novel that felt finished.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Haploid Prince

Identical twins are simultaneous clones, right? The fertilized cells, dividing and dividing, somehow divide into two batches and, instead of working together to create one human individual, work in parallel to make two. Simple minded science fiction stories have imagined clones as exact duplicates of an original. But a clone won’t be the same person. Identical twins, despite having grown from only one fertilized egg cell, end up being different people. They have a lot of similarities, and scientists are still studying identical twins to try to figure out which similarities are inherent in that original cell, but they are separate people.

I’ve heard that geckos can produce clones of themselves. A gecko egg does not need to be fertilized to develop into a normal gecko. A normal female gecko. Which is a clone of its mother.

When an ant queen lays eggs and female worker ants hatch from them, those eggs were fertilized by sperm from a male ant. During the future queen’s maiden – and conjugal – and only – flight, she mates with as many ant males as she can. She can store up sperm for years, using it judiciously to build up an ant city of her daughters. The ant queen also produces sons. But she doesn’t use sperm on the eggs that will hatch as sons. Her sons are her clones. Half-clones, actually.
Most animals, including humans, are diploid, which means that each of their cells contains two sets of chromosomes. When they make sperm and eggs, however, each sperm and egg contains only one chromosome set: when they are combined in the form of a fertilized egg, the animal will then be born with two sets of chromosomes. Males of bees and ants, however, are born as haploid animals, which means that each of their cells contains only a single set of chromosomes.

Cut a queen in half and she’s really a boy? It takes two kings to make a queen …

Which leaves me wondering about those geckos – are they all just a harem of haploids?

source: Secret Lives of Ants by Jae Choe

Thursday, January 31, 2013

the marriage of ammonia and a tire fire?

As a kid I was a finicky eater. There were lots of things I wouldn’t even try. They didn’t look good, they didn’t smell good. Something. Gradually as I grew I allowed myself to be cajoled into trying new things, and, what do you know?, some of them I liked. I tried new things on my own. Sometimes secretly. And if I liked those things, yay, I could cross another fear off my food anxiety list.

There are a few things I’ve tried repeatedly. Beer. I’ve never yet been able to get past the bitterness of beer. I think I’ve forced myself through half a glass of beer, but I’ve never made it all the way to the bottom. I can get down vodka straight but I can’t swallow the most praised lager. Gin is pretty nasty, too. Ditto tequila.

I can enjoy some wines. And fruit drinks that mask the alcohol with sweetness and sparkling flavors.

Eggplant? If it’s cooked pretty darn thoroughly. Okra? Um. I had some deep-fried okra on our last road trip and it was okay. But I couldn’t quite finish what they’d put on my plate.

But I’m not really finicky anymore. If I don’t like it, I don’t have to clean my plate, although I usually do when I’m hungry, even when doing so isn’t a pleasure. I don’t refuse to taste anything. I’m game.

So when I saw an item on the breakfast menu at our resort in Hawaii, an item I’d never heard of, I asked about it. It’s popular with the Japanese, I was told. Popular, huh? Well, if it’s popular I can probably eat enough to stanch my hunger. I like sushi. I like rice. I tolerate tofu.

Let’s turn to Rachel Herz for a description of the dish (excerpted from Herz’s book, That’s Disgusting: unraveling the mysteries of repulsion):
Natto is a stringy (the strings can stretch up to four feet), sticky, slimy, chunky, fermented soybean dish that the Japanese love and regularly eat for breakfast. It can be eaten straight up, but is usually served cold over rice and seasoned with soy sauce, mustard, or wasabi and can also be garnished with green onion, fish flakes, raw eggs, or radish. The latest figures show that over 14 billion pounds of natto are produced annually for Japan’s population of 127.9 million people. Aside from its alien and complex texture, natto suffers from another problem – odor – at least for Westerners. To me, natto smells like the marriage of ammonia and a tire fire. … [T]here is not a Westerner I know of who at first attempt can get natto into their mouth.

I got natto into my mouth. One or two beans, I think. But, yeah, it was pretty weird. A bowl full of small red beans with yellowish threads running through them. Pick up a bean and the attached thread stretches and stretches. Like mozzarella cheese. Only, it’s not cheese. What is it? According to Herz it’s some sort of fungus. I don’t remember the smell. Except that there was nothing attractive about it. I turned to the egg, thinking at least I could have egg with my rice. I cracked the egg. The inside was raw. Raw egg? Raw egg is yucky enough. I’m losing interest in natto pretty fast.

I ate the rice. And there was probably some miso soup or something. Maybe I broke down and ordered pancakes. I forget. When I read Herz’s description of natto the mental picture of those beans on my breakfast table was immediately available.