Tuesday, December 29, 2015

having new things to think about

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015. Random House, NY

Saturday, December 26, 2015

another scary scenario

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

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

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

OK then.

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

Friday, December 25, 2015

Trying to figure out falling

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 30, 2015

more space between the eyes v. shorter foreheads

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 29, 2015

on the dangers of metaphor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

“all this straight support”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

“the door is open a crack”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 08, 2015

“We couldn’t. It was too hard.”

In an interview with music magazine Mojo Bernard Sumner, guitarist for Joy Division and lead singer for New Order, is asked about his recently released autobiography and how Sumner felt about “revisiting your memories of Joy Division and Ian [Curtis, JD lead singer]?”

What was different about us was that we really didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t know how to write songs, therefore we wrote songs in different ways. Most bands learned by copying other bands’ records. We couldn’t. It was too hard. So we learned to play by not being able to play.

A common bit of advice for novice artists (painters, musicians, poets, etc.) is how you’re first to get down the received forms, copy the masters, right? Once you can make a competent sonnet or can produce a life-like drawing, you are free to (allowed to?) go off in experimental, strange, abstract, incompetent-seeming directions. But first you need that base in the conventional.

The Sumner quote reminds me of something similar I read about Gertrude Stein. Supposedly Stein tried to write conventionally, failed at it, then went off in those strange, abstract, incompetent-seeming directions for which she became famous, and sometimes even read.

There are a lot of ways to go about it, really. The Bad Thing is to prescribe the One Right Way and believe what you’re saying is Good.

source: Mojo issue 262, September 2015

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

phrase of the day: Zee helft ihm vee a toyten bahnkess

In Bernard Cooper’s novel, A Year of Rhymes, the young narrator has an aunt who occasionally lets out a Yiddish word or phrase. I am familiar with Yiddish only in the most banal sort of way — oy vey, say, or mensch.

When I came across Zee helft ihm vee a toyten bahnkess I didn’t know what to do with it.

Here’s the context: The young teen narrator has a brother almost ten years his elder and this brother is dating a young woman of whom the family doesn’t quite approve. Marion and Bob step out to the patio thinking they are having a private argument but, of course, everybody in the house overhears. Aunt Ida, disgusted by the scene, prods the younger brother to retreat to his bedroom:

”Say good night,” she commanded.


“Because,” said Ida, “the sun has sunk.” … Ida stomped through the dining room, dragging me behind her. … All the way down the hall, Ida spat Yiddish invective. She shut the door to my bedroom behind us, leaned against it, and glared toward God. “Zee helft ihm vee a toyten bahnkess.

This is Yiddish invective? I tried Googling the whole phrase but got nothing. I tried Google Translate and got — nothing. I approached my husband for ideas. He suggested trying just the phrase “toyten bahkess, as he thought it might be the most important part.

I did get something then. Maybe my lack of result earlier had to do with Cooper’s nonstandard spelling — if there is a standard. The best explanation I found for the phrase spells it rather differently: ES VET HELFN VI A TOYTN BANKES. That’s so close to Cooper’s phrase that I figure it must be the same thing. Right?

Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe translates it: "It will help like blood-cupping a corpse; it's absolutely hopeless; wasted effort; useless.”

Blood-cupping. This is what Wikipedia says about that, “Cupping therapy is an ancient form of alternative medicine in which a local suction is created on the skin; practitioners believe this mobilizes blood flow in order to promote healing. Suction is created using heat (fire) or mechanical devices (hand or electrical pumps).” The suction is used to affix cup or small bowl to the skin, presumably to help draw illness out of the body.

Since cupping is a treatment for sickness I suppose, like any treatment for sickness, cupping would be pointless when used on a corpse.

Before the internet developed its many useful and easy tools I wouldn’t have done more than shrug at this bit of language. What could I have done to make it accessible? Get out the phone book and find a Yiddish language expert? Write a letter to the author? It’s common in literature to encounter bits of other languages plopped untranslated into English. Typically it’s Latin or, even worse, Greek. But I’ve stumbled (or skipped blithely) over French and German, too. When reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer I put in placemarks wherever I came across untranslated French. Later I typed up all the bits and made them a DIR post. A less-than-useful post, I’m sure, as I didn’t know how to include the curlies and hooks on the letters to make them authentically French.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Notes toward an autobiography by others (Liz Prince edition)

Yes, I blamed the cat, too. Of course, he’s usually at fault as he snores.

read this in Alone Forever: the singles collection by Liz Prince
2014. Top Shelf Productions, Marietta GA

where I took the image from: Liz Prince’s Live Journal

Monday, September 28, 2015

word of the day: fungate

[There was] a mass in her pelvis the size of a child’s fist. In the operating room, it proved to be an ovarian cancer, and it had spread throughout her abdomen. Soft, fungating tumor deposits studded her uterus, her bladder, her colon, and the lining of her abdomen.

Before I get to the definition I have to say that if I saw the word “fungate” without context I would concentrate on the first syllable, which, after all, is a word with a lot of nice connotations. If told “fungate” was a verb I might guess it had something to do with fungus. Given the context we find it in, I have to grant there’s nothing pleasant that comes to mind.

definition (courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary): To grow up with a fungous form or appearance; to grow rapidly like a fungus

source: Being Mortal: medicine and what matters in the end by Atul Gawande
2014. Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt & Co., NY

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

word of the day: frumenty

So that night all was feasting, and if Ann and Roger and Eliza found the taste of roast venison disappointing (maybe because of the deer they had seen all alive and beautiful in the forest), at least they were too well brought up to say so. And dessert, which was wild strawberry junket and frumenty, was dandy.

definition: A dish made of hulled wheat boiled in milk, and seasoned with cinnamon, sugar, etc.

definition source: The Oxford English Dictionary

I didn’t know “junket” in this context either. According to the OED it is, “Any dainty sweetmeat, cake, or confection; a sweet dish; a delicacy; a kickshaw.”

A kickshaw?

A junket could also be more specifically a dessert made with sweetened curds and cream. There’s not enough context to say. Frumenty seems to have been chosen by Eager for its medieval flavor. Perhaps “junket” had a suggestion of old-timey-ness, too.

Ann and Roger are adventuring with Robin Hood in a magical version of Sherwood Forest.

quote source: Knight’s Castle by Edward Eager.
Illustrated by N. M. Bodecker
1956 / 1984. Odyssey / Harcourt Brace & Co., New York

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

word of the day: charabanc

… their places are taken by another population, with views about nature,
Brought in charabanc and saloon along arterial roads;
Tourists to whom the Tudor cafes
Offer Bovril and buns upon Breton ware
With leather-work as a sideline: Filling stations
Supplying petrol from rustic pumps.

W. H. Auden didn’t title his poems early in his career. The lines above are, according to editor Edward Mendelson, “from ‘The Dog Beneath the Skin’: 1932, ? 1934”.

definition: A kind of long and light vehicle with transverse seats looking forward. Also, a motor-coach.

What Americans would call a tour bus?

definition source: The Oxford English Dictionary

Auden uses “saloon” in a way unfamiliar to me. According to the OED, a saloon isn’t just another word for a drinking establishment but also “A type of motor car with a closed body for four or more passengers.” Among the exemplary quotes is the very line above.

I didn’t know “Bovril.” It’s “The proprietary name of a concentrated essence of beef, invented in 1889 by J. Lawson Johnston,” according to the OED. And, yes, the OED quotes the “Bovril and buns” line as an example of usage.

I’m following in the footsteps of the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary!

source for Auden lines: Selected Poems W. H. Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson
1979. Vintage Books / Random House, NY

Monday, August 31, 2015

pride is no longer a thrill for the super-rich

”What would make him insist on having the company buy his postage stamps?” … “Well, when you have all that money, the only thing you can’t buy is something free. Whereas less extravagantly compensated people often take pride in being able to make purchases from their earnings,” she said, “If you are super-rich the thrill is gone.”

— Nell Minow on the compensation package of Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric.

source: “The Pay Problem” by David Owen The New Yorker “The Money Issue” Oct 12, 2009, v. 85 no. 32

Sunday, August 30, 2015

word of the day: hermeneutics

As for the hermeneutics of suspicion, I begin with Steven Weinberg’s report of an elderly friend of his who (at the prospect of his impending death) says he draws some consolation from the fact that when that event arrives he will never have to rush to his dictionary to look up what the word hermeneutics means. It means interpretation, but hermeneutics sounds more imposing. [italics in original]

The hermeneutics of suspicion is an interpretive device that attacks theses not head-on but indirectly, by innuendo. … In everyday examples, the claimant is accused of wanting to make a name for himself, or to be a provocateur.

definition (from the Oxford English Dictionary): The study or analysis of how texts, utterances, or actions are interpreted. Also: a particular system of interpretation or scheme of analysis for language or actions.

I marked the above passage in Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters because, like Weinberg’s “elderly friend” I always forget what “hermeneutics” means.

Once I started copying it out I went on and copied out the bit about the “hermeneutics of suspicion” because, why not? I doubt I will ever pop the term into conversation (or an essay), but, as with the naming of fallacies, it’s not a bad idea to know that an abusive rhetorical strategy has been pointed out for shaming by somebody clever enough to do so. Unless its inventor did it cuz she couldn’t get laid.

source: Why Religion Matters: the fate of the human spirit in an age of disbelief by Huston Smith
2001. HarperCollins, New York

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

pile of reading

Why Religion Matters: the fate of the human spirit in an age of disbelief by Huston Smith
I’m reading Why Religion Matters on my breaks at work. I agree with Huston Smith somewhat, he seems a nice enough fellow, but he has yet to lead me to a place where the evils of religion are clearly outweighed by true goodness. It’s not that I’m totally convinced religion is worthless or necessarily monstrous, rather I’m agnostic on the matter. I know there are good and gentle (and fierce) people who are inspired by religious beliefs to do extraordinary and good things. Yet there are so many who seem inspired by their religious beliefs to hack at people with machetes or blow themselves up in crowded marketplaces. As a gay man I pay attention to the role conservative religious beliefs continue to play in forcing people to live inauthentic, stunted, and tragic lives. How mean-spirited many religious seem to be. Still, while genial folks like Smith insist there’s something to it, I will keep open an ear.

In Other Lands Than Ours by Maud Gage Baum
L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, went with his wife Maud to Europe and Egypt in 1906. Maud wrote letters home. The letters were lively and evocative so they were collected and published (privately, I believe). I downloaded the Pumpernickel Pickle e-book version from lulu.com and am reading the book on my iPad.

Gaysia: adventures in the queer east by Benjamin Law
Law is an ethnically Chinese Australian. He devotes a chapter each to Indonesia (although Law doesn’t explore beyond Bali), Thailand, China, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, and India. I hadn’t heard before that Bali was a gay destination. That seems to be a new thing. But the locals are more friendly to it than you might expect. I am now reading about Thai ladyboys (the term is not an insult, Law is told).

The Bedside Guide to the No Tell Motel: second floor edited by Reb Livingston and Molly Arden
An anthology of poetry themed (but not terribly strictly) to the sensual and interpersonal. No Tell Motel was an ezine that I visited for a while.

A Byzantine Journey by John Ash
John Ash was a visiting poet-teacher at UC Berkeley one of my years there. I took his workshop. Lately I’ve been catching up on what he’s written in the 20 years since. Ash long had a fascination for Byzantium, what’s often called the Holy Roman Empire. Rome didn’t fall, as far as the Byzantines were concerned; it just contracted a little. I’ve read Ash’s poetry books. A Byzantine Journey is prose, travel literature, the kind of thing I’ve gotten a taste for recently. The writer moves about taking down impressions, complaining about food or transportation, limning the locals and the ruins, and weaving in library research.

Eating Fire: my life as a Lesbian Avenger by Kelly Cogswell
The Lesbian Avengers formed in the wake of AIDS activist group ACT UP, eager to put a strong feminist voice on the streets again. For one action Kelly Cogswell teaches herself to spew fire like a circus performer. She and her colleagues make TIME Magazine flaming up in front of the White House.

A Year of Rhymes by Bernard Cooper
I enjoyed Bernard Cooper’s My Avant-Garde Education, which was billed as memoir. I knew I had a novel on my shelf so I pulled it down.

Two Lines: world writing in translation issue 22
In earlier issues Two Lines featured introductions to the English versions written by the translators who talk about what attracted them to the task, what special challenges were faced, and some biographical info about the non-English-writing author. The intros have been dispensed with, mostly. I miss them.

Variety Photoplays poems by Edward Field
I bought this a long time ago. I even got Edward Field to sign it. But, as much as I like Field’s poetry, I held off reading Variety Photoplays because so many of the poems contained spoilers to old movies. Field basically retells the plots of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein and SHE, and I hadn’t seen them! I still haven’t seen SHE — and now I don’t have to! I had a hankering to read Edward Field’s newest book, After the Fall: poems old and new, but when I opened it I remembered that I hadn’t yet read Variety Photoplays. So I’m reading Variety Photoplays.

Selected Poems by W. H. Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson
I’ve said before that I won’t read a selected when I can read a complete. I have the feeling I’m going to renege on that commitment more often than I’m going to comply. I’m reading Auden rather the way I read Emily Dickinson. I read at least two pages at a sitting. I read at least two pages so I can physically turn a page and know when next I open the book I will be reading a poem new to me. I was doing that thing where I open to the placemark and find myself rereading the poem I read last time then stopping because one poem was all I could handle. One does need to move along.

The Flayed God: the mythology of Mesoamerica by Roberta H. Markman and Peter Markman
I’ve returned to The Flayed God after a long pause.The worldview of the Mesoamerican empires can be, well, unsettling. The Aztecs are known for human sacrifice, but did you know they would strip the skin off a victim and wear the skin around for a month? I know there are intense, world-preserving mystical justifications for this, but — shudder — it still looks like butchery, doesn’t it?

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon translated and edited by Ivan Morris
Sei Shonagon was a contemporary of Murasaki, the woman famous for writing what may be the first novel, The Tale of Genji. In her Pillow Book Sei Shonagon records anecdotes, impressions, and likes and dislikes. For instance, in a list titled “Depressing Things,” she mentions, “A dog howling in the daytime. … A cold, empty brazier. An ox-driver who hates his oxen.”

From the Other Side of the Century: a new American poetry 1960-1990 edited by Douglas Messerli
An 1100 page anthology. I’m going to be at this one for quite some time. Messerli’s project focuses on the experimental, the innovative. Lyn Hejinian, yes; Robert Hass, no. Allen Ginsberg, yes; Robert Lowell, no. Rae Armentrout, yes; Louis Gluck, no.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

the ragged strip that was left

Once I was sure the librarian [of the junior high school library] was distracted in the stacks, I quietly tore out the article in Life and folded it into my shirt pocket. I hadn’t so much as stolen a candy bar before that day. I’d been taught never to write in the pages of a book from the library or to tear out the pages from a magazine in a waiting room. My mother demonstrated the concept of respect for others’ property one day in the dentist’s office when she found a recipe she wanted to tear out of Good Housekeeping had already been torn out. “Don’t do this,” she said, showing me the ragged strip that was left. Despite the admonition, I kept the stolen pages of Life in the nightstand next to my bed and furtively eyed the article every night, the saturated color raising my pulse, the effect of Pop art nearly pornographic.

source: My Avant-Garde Education: a memoir by Bernard Cooper

At the Claremont Branch of the Berkeley Public Library the newest issue of Scientific American would be short of articles soon after it arrived. Someone was neatly and precisely snipping out pages because, I don’t know, he found the science “nearly pornographic” and couldn’t live without secreting the formulas in the “nightstand next to [the] bed”?

We put that magazine (and Consumer Reports and The New York Review of Books) on a shelf behind the Information Desk and only handed them over if presented with a library card, which we held onto until the magazine was returned and its contents reviewed.

I’m pretty sure I was the one who ID’d the culprit, although I made the mistake of handing him his library card before I flipped through the magazine. When I discovered that pages were missing I went up to the mild-mannered retiree, who did not look familiar to me, and asked him if he had noticed that articles had been removed. “Oh no, really?” he said.

We were trying to catch the person who’d been doing it, so if you could let us know when an article is missing, I said to him, we would appreciate it, as though I were earnestly enlisting his support in the project. It’s been several months now since an article has been snipped from Scientific American. Nor have I seen the fellow around. But would I recognize him anyway?

This is my third DIR post about authors confessing in memoirs to filching from libraries. See also Ode to Joy and another memoir, another library thief.

Monday, August 03, 2015

“I don’t want to watch boys masturbating.”

Excerpt from a Berkeley Poetry Review interview with Steve Lance and Lyn Hejinian:

How does that unpredictability and surprise relate to what you were describing earlier about how we are over-inundated with newness and we can’t place as much value in encountering new things anymore?

Steve Lance:
Well novelty is weird now. Novelty itself is commonplace. I don’t just mean in a sense of aesthetics, but do you guys know about Chatroulette? You go to a website and click “connect me” and you have your video going on, and it connects you with a random stranger. And about a third of the time it’s a guy masturbating. There are a lot of penises in this. But almost every single time it’s just people who say “hey” and that’s it. And they’re just looking to be amused by this crazy new thing. It’s totally wild, totally insane but totally boring. It’s just boring. It’s either boring or a guy masturbating.

That’s funny because I was about to say that novelty is so pornographic now. It’s just the speed of amusement, and complete commitment of your desire to that quick amusement.

Steve Lance:
Well, we should go on Chatroulette right now.

Lyn Hejinian
I don’t want to watch boys masturbating.

I’d never heard of Chat Roulette. (Probably more accurately I should say, if I ever had heard of Chat Roulette everything about it has slipped from memory.)

So I looked for more information and found a couple Hot New Thing articles about Chat Roulette. It was the Hot New Thing in 2010! Sam Anderson’s article at New York Magazine describes his experience:

I entered the fray on a bright Wednesday afternoon, with an open mind and an eager soul, ready to sound my barbaric yawp through the webcams of the world. I left absolutely crushed. It turns out that ChatRoulette, in practice, is brutal. The first eighteen people who saw me disconnected immediately. They appeared, one by one, in a box at the top of my screen—a young Asian man, a high-school-age girl, a guy lying on his side in bed—and, every time, I’d feel a little flare of excitement. Every time, they’d leave without saying a word. Sometimes I could even watch them reach down, in horrifying real-time, and click “next.” It was devastating. My first even semi-successful interaction was with a guy with a blanket draped over his lap who asked if I wanted to “jack of” with him. I declined; he disconnected. Over the course of an hour, I was rejected by what felt like a cast of thousands: a teenage girl talking on her cell phone, a close-up of an eyeball. It started to feel like a social-anxiety nightmare. One guy just stared into the camera and flipped me off. Another stood in front of his computer making wave motions with his hands, refusing to respond to anything I typed. One person had the courtesy to give me, before disconnecting, a little advice: “too old.” (I’m 32.)

Anderson pushes on, bringing in a male friend, asking his wife to participate, and he has some fun after all:

The default interaction on ChatRoulette is roughly three seconds long: assessment, micro-interaction, "next." This might seem like yet another outrage of the Internet era—the Twitter-fication of face-to-face interaction. But I was surprised (as I was with Twitter) by how much pleasant communication—joy, interest, empathy—can occur in these tiny chunks. The quest to connect becomes lightning-quick. A few seconds is plenty of time to wave, or give a thumbs-up, or type “EMO HAIR,” or elaborately mime the process of smoking marijuana, or jovially flip somebody off. (Middle fingers are extremely popular on ChatRoulette, and somehow seem affectionate.)
Eventually, I realized that clicking “next” was not so much a rejection as it was pure curiosity, like riding a train past an apartment building at night, looking briefly into as many lit windows as possible.

The New Yorker’s Julia Ioffe wrote about Chat Roulette at about the same time:

The point is to introduce you to people you’d never otherwise meet and will never see again—the dancing Korean girls, the leopard-printed Catman, the naked man in Gdansk. More than a million people, most of them from the United States, clog Chatroulette’s servers daily. To “next” someone has become a common transitive verb. Catman is an Internet celebrity, as is Merton the improvising pianist. Brooklyn bars throw Chatroulette parties, an indie band has used the site to début an album, and the Texas attorney general has warned parents to keep their children far, far away.

Sam Anderson mentions the dancing Korean girls, too.

My Google searches for Chat Roulette aren’t returning much that’s current. Perhaps I should end with a quote from salon.com’s “What went viral 5 years ago today: Chatroulette, social media’s short-lived penis empire”:

[B]efore the webcam service was declared officially dead at the tender age of eight months, the website did provide us a fascinating window into human nature in the digital age. And by that, of course, I mean penises.

According to an RJ Metrics survey from March 2010, 89 percent of Chatroulette users were male. Many, many of those men were baring it all on screen, apparently, prompting the site’s Russian teen founder to, at one point, threaten to turn the naked offenders into the cops. The absurd nudity problem quickly became part and parcel of the Chatroulette experience.

Chatroulette.com is still online. You have to register to use it. Maybe you didn’t five years ago. The articles don’t mention that. Back in 2010 there was no age limit. Now there is. And now, officially at least, no dicks:

1. Broadcasting or offering nudity is not allowed.

2. If you are under 18, you can not use the service.

source of interview quote: Berkeley Poetry Review Issue 41
2010. UC Berkeley, California

Friday, July 31, 2015

Let’s stay down under, way, way, way down deep

While researching his book Deep, James Nestor hires a private submarine for a tour of the sea bottom 2500 feet down. Nestor’s description of the sights reminded me of L. Frank Baum’s Sea Fairies wherein the visiting land dwellers are given mermaid tails and gills so they can mosey about comfortably. They see fiddler crabs playing violins, listen to the songs of barnacles, avoid a cross sea pig, and pause before a batch of jellyfish:

[F]loating in the clear water was a group of beautiful shapes that the child thought looked like molds of wine jelly. They were round as a dinner plate, soft and transparent, but tinted in such lovely hues that no artist’s brush has ever been able to imitate them. Some were deep sapphire blue; others rose pink; still others a delicate topaz color. They seemed to have neither heads, eyes nor ears, yet it was easy to see they were alive and able to float in any direction they wished to go. In shape they resembled inverted flowerpots, with the upper edges fluted, and from the center floated what seemed to be bouquets of flowers.

Most of the creatures in Sea Fairies are punnily magical, but in the case of the jellyfish Baum seems to find their natural state magic enough. Sea Fairies was published in 1911 and available views of undersea life at that time were very limited.

Even today the deeper you wish to go the harder it is to get there. Water is heavy and ever so crushingly heavier the more it piles on itself. Light doesn’t get as deep as Nestor does in the little yellow Idabel (captained by its creator Karl Stanley). Yet there is color in the darkness, color generated by the natives:

In the distance, a group of glittering disco balls hangs a few feet above the seafloor. It’s a school of squids, Stanley tells us. Each is wrapped in a Technicolor coat more sparkly and garish than the next. Beside the squids are other animals — jellyfish, I think — that emit bright pink and purple light. It’s like we’ve stumbled into some underwater Studio 54. …

A two-foot glob of flashing color approaches, then hovers a few inches from the window. Along the top of this glob is a blanket of lights, all blinking, one after the other, in perfect synchroncity. First, only blue lights flash, then only red; then purple; then yellow, until every color in the spectrum has appeared. Then all the colors flash at the same time and the spectacle repeats. The hundreds of rows of little lights are evenly spaced around the glob. It looks like a cityscape at night: when the lights are red, they look like the taillights of cars on a freeway; when they’re white, they look like a grid of streetlights as viewed from an airplane thousands of feet above. Between these lights, there is nothing, no visible flesh, no nerves, no bones or body. … Stanley says it’s a comb jellyfish, the biggest he’s ever seen.

Deep: freediving, renegade science, and what the ocean tells us about ourselves by James Nestor
2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York
Sea Fairies by L. Frank Baum
1911. Reilly & Lee, Chicago

[The post title is a couple lines from Tom Tom Club's "Suboceana"]

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Do speakers of Tzeltal never get lost in the woods?

I remember reading about a language that features the cardinal directions in its grammar. The author did not include a description of the method this language’s speakers use to determine whether one is facing east, west, north, or south with such dependable accuracy that they can take it for granted, which is something you have to do if you’re going to be incorporating that information into everyday speech. I remember wondering if speakers were rarely indoors, thus hip to directional cues from the sky, the sun during the day, the stars at night. But I didn’t take it any farther than an idle puzzling.

In a discussion of hidden senses in his book Deep James Nestor says this:

The Guugu Yimithirr, an Australian Aboriginal tribe, had a remarkable sense of direction that they incorporated into their language. Instead of using words meaning ‘right,’ ‘left,’ ‘front,’ and ‘back,’ Guugu Yimithirr used the cardinal directions of north, south, east, and west. If a Guugu Yimithirr tribesman wanted you to make room for him on a bed, he’d ask you to move a few feet west. Guugu Yimithirr didn’t bend backward, they bent northward, or southward, or eastward.

The only way Guugu Yimithirr could communicate was by knowing their exact coordinates at all times … But it was second nature to them, as well as for a host of cultures throughout Indonesia, Mexico, Polynesia, and elsewhere, whose languages were also based on cardinal directions.

In the 1990s, researchers from the … Max Planck Institute … placed a speaker of Tzeltal — a Mayan directional language spoken by about 370,000 people in southern Mexico — in a dark house and spun him around blindfolded. … [A]sked … to point north, south, east, and then west [the Tzeltal speaker] did this successfully, and without hesitation, twenty times in a row.

You’ve heard that birds and sharks use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate, right? Well, maybe that’s how east and south got into grammar. Maybe we can take advantage of magnets in our heads.

“Human magnetoreception [is] distinct from other senses, like vision and smell [in that magnetoreception] is an unconscious, latent sense,” says Nestor. “We don’t know it exists unless we put ourselves in a situation in which we have to use it.”

Like when we’re lost in the woods? Or at sea?

Were the Polynesians relying on their magnetoreceptive sense when they colonized islands thousands of miles apart in the Pacific?

source: Deep: freediving, renegade science, and what the ocean tells us about ourselves by James Nestor
2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York

Sunday, July 19, 2015

word of the day: scanlation

Many of the readers coming to this book [Massive: gay erotic manga and the men who make it] will have found the first crumbs leading to our pie years ago at websites that host scanlations and other forms of pirated manga. The road we as editors took to get here was itself paved in part by the purveyors of these illicit goods — not because we were downloading illegal scanlations, but because the presence of those sites was proof that thousands of manga fans were desperate for legitimation. Across the board(s), we’d see the same rationalizations come up repeatedly in conversations about the unsanctioned translations.

“It doesn’t hurt anyone because it’s out of print.”
“It’s never going to be published in English.”

The problem isn’t just when this isn’t true. It’s the fact that not telling someone you like their stuff enough to sepnd hours translating and publicizing the work is just weird. It’s a little bit stalker-like.

That’s Anne Ishii, one of the editors (and the translator) of the gay manga collection.

I think you get the definition just fine from the context. It’s a new word, clearly. The most thorough version of its meaning is this one at Wikipedia:

definition: the scanning, translation, and editing of comics from a language into another language. Scanlation is done as an amateur work and is nearly always done without express permission from the copyright holder. The word “scanlation" is a portmanteau of the words scan and translation. The term is mainly used for Japanese comics (manga), although it also exists for other national traditions on a lesser scale. Scanlations may be viewed at websites or as sets of image files downloaded via the Internet.

source: Massive: gay erotic manga and the men who make it edited by Anne Ishii, Chip Kidd, and Graham Kolbeins
2014. Fantagraphics Books, Seattle WA

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

“Attitudes” by Jean Le Louet


At that time I saw three men. The first was covered with blood, and because they had beaten him, the blood kept pouring out of him. The second was kneeling, and because they had tied his arms, he remained on his knees. The third was sitting at his enemy’s table, and because the enemy treated him with respect, he remained at that table.

Then I called the first by name and cried out to him, “Don’t die.” But the blood continued to flow and through the blood he replied, “I’ll make it, because I love.”

Then I named the second man and cried out to him, “Cast off your bonds.” He replied, “I am weak, and the man who tied me up is very strong.”

And I named the third man and said to him, “Stand up, won’t you!” And he replied, “I shall remain here, because my enemy is cunning and I wish to outwit him.”

Then I summoned the angel of unity and said to him, “Unite these people or destroy them.” At that the angel of unity took the first man’s blood and smeared it on the other two.

And he who had been kneeling and he who was sitting were strengthened.

The bleeding man leaned on them for support. And the blood flowed less freely from his wounds. And the blood removed the veil from their eyes.

I came across Jean Le Louet’s poem in Czeslaw Milosz’s Year of the Hunter. Czeslaw Milosz includes some context:

[I]t is a translation into French of my translation into Polish; the French original was lost. Its author, Jean Le Louet, a French poet of the second wave of Surrealism was in Warsaw in August 1939, possibly for romantic reasons (he was gay). … The outbreak of war caught him in Warsaw; the Germans sent him to Lake Constance as a French citizen, and he was interned along with another French citizen, Stanislaw Dygat. That is when he wrote the poem, immediately after the fall of France in 1940, I believe. Dygat brought it to Warsaw and gave it to me; I translated it and put it in my anthology The Invincible Song (1942).

Louet [was] thin, delicate, almost feminine, with a sickly throat, speaking in a whisper. … I heard that after the war he led the life of a clochard [vagrant]. No one knows when he died. … Completely forgotten as a poet, with that one title to his fame — a poem in Polish translation. An unusual poem, having nothing to do with Surrealism … but referring to biblical tradition (as if it were written by a Polish romantic poet); a prophetic poem, because how in 1940 could he have foreseen collaboration?

I searched the web for more on Jean Le Louet and found description of a chapbook from 1937, Ceci Passe: Quatrième Cahier de Habitude de la Poésie. So it seems more than just a single poem of Jean Le Louet has survived. I found no mention of his publishing after the war. I’m sure there are French sources to search, but that’s beyond me.

I present the poem here because I like it. The poem traveled no easy path to survival. Yet, despite Milosz’s claim, it is not the only “title to his fame.” I am curious, if Milosz’s translation is the closest we can get to Louet’s French original, is the one here, the version in English, translated from Milosz’s French version of his own Polish version or did the translator of A Year of the Hunter, Madeline Levine, work with Milosz’s Polish?

source: A Year of the Hunter by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Madeline G. Levine. 1994. Farr, Straus and Giroux.

update: After asking the question at the end of the post, I looked up the translator, Madeline G. Levine. There is a professor of Slavic Literatures, Emerita at the University of North Carolina named Madeline G. Levine. Her email is listed on the UNC site. So I sent Ms Levine an email, apologizing for bothering her, but wondering if she could recall whether Jean Le Louet’s “Attitudes” made one stop or two on its way to English. Ms Levine wrote back the same day saying she remembers reviewing the page proofs of Year of the Hunter with Milosz himself. She said she translated the poem from the Polish. The French original (in Stanislaw Dygat’s transcription) must have been lost. Why else would the poem require retranslation from Polish back into French?

Monday, July 13, 2015

word of the day: auscultate

Primo Levi survived the German extermination camp, Auschwitz. Reflecting on Germany in 1960, fifteen years after its defeat in World War II, Levi thinks back to the country’s embrace of Nazism. “[T]he National Socialist message found an echo precisely in the Germans’ traditional virtues, in their sense of discipline and national cohesion, their unquenched thirst for primacy, their propensity for slavish obedience.”

What has changed since the end of the war?
It is difficult to auscultate the hearbeat of a people. Anyone who travels in Germany today finds the outward appearances that I found everywhere. A growing affluence, peaceful people, large and small intrigues, a moderate subversive atmosphere; on the stands, newspapers like ours, conversations like ours on trains and in trams; a few scandals that end like all scandals. And yet in the air you sense something that you do not sense elsewhere. Anyone who takes them to task for the dreadful events of recent history rarely finds repentance, or even critical consciousness: much more often he encounters an ambiguous response, in which are intertwined a feeling of guilt, a desire for vindication, and a deliberate and impudent ignorance.

definition: to listen (especially with a stethoscope)

source: The Mirror Maker: stories and essays by Primo Levi
translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal
1989. Random House, New York

Sunday, July 12, 2015

word of the day: vernissage

He is working three or four nights a week for the caterer, plus the odd afternoons, waiting tables, tending bar, assembling hors d’oeuvres; at bar mitzvahs, cocktails, vernissages, dinner parties, bank openings. … He prefers to work in the kitchen or pantry, where he is safe from discovery and can make the rent money in peace. Often he has looked out from the equivalent of the wings and spotted a friend or even a table of friends among the guests. Everything he does … is a distortion of his old expectations of being rich and glamorous. He is present at the experience but on the wrong side of the canapes.

definition (from the Oxford English Dictionary): A day before the exhibition of paintings on which exhibitors may retouch and varnish their pictures already hung. Now usu. denoting a private view of paintings before public exhibition.

source: The Family of Max Desire a novel by Robert Ferro
1983. E. P. Dutton, New York

Saturday, July 11, 2015

word of the day: gallooning

The house faced the sea from a low bluff of dunes beside a red-brick lighthouse with a fourteen-mile, two-second light. Down the coast green lawns met the beach with a thin gray strip of boardwalk in between, like gallooning. All the way down, where on the clearest days the horizon came ashore, the rocks of an inlet led into Barnegat Bay.

definition (The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t offer this particular form “gallooning;” however a definition appears under “galloon”): A kind of narrow, close-woven ribbon or braid, of gold, silver, or silk thread, used for trimming articles of apparel; a trimming of this material.

source: The Family of Max Desire a novel by Robert Ferro
1983. E. P. Dutton, New York

Friday, July 10, 2015

word of the day: machicolation

On either side of the gate rose square towers
faced with white marble, one pierced by
a narrow door, too low to enter without stooping.
Beyond it, ramps and stairs twisted upwards
through the mass of stone. At the halfway point
the lights failed: it was completely dark.
We lit improvised tapers, emerging at length
on the broad summit of the tower.

The students posed for a group portrait against
a backdrop of machicolations and the sea,
but the elevation made me giddy and my knees weak,
so I descended alone, stumbling in the dark.

lines from John Ash’s “The Tour”

definition (according to the Oxford English Dictionary): Archit. An opening between the corbels which support a projecting defensive parapet, or in the floor of a gallery or the roof of a portal, through which combustibles, molten lead, stones, etc., could be dropped upon assailants below. Also: a projecting structure having a range of such openings.

source: The Anatolikon by John Ash
2000. Talisman House Publishers, Jersey City, NJ

Thursday, July 09, 2015

word of the day: pervicacious

[Dr William] Masters underlined a quote he found in the library from Dr. Robert L. Dickinson, former president of the American Gynecological Society, who wrote in JAMA [The Journal of the American Medical Association] during the mid-1920s: “In view of the pervicacious gonadal urge in human beings, it is not a little curious that science develops its sole timidity about the pivotal point of the physiology of sex.”

definition (from the Oxford English Dictionary): Thoroughly obstinate or stubborn; headstrong, wilful, refractory.

The prudish aversion to serious research into human sexual response is nearly as pervicacious as human sexual response is pervy.

source: Masters of Sex: the life and times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the couple who taught America how to love by Thomas Maier

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

word of the day: titrate

Dr. N. was a decent, sensitive man who had known Michael since his initial psychosis nearly fourteen years earlier, and he too was disturbed by the new, drug-related problems he was encountering with many of his patients on Largactil. He was trying to titrate the drug, to find a dosage which would be just enough but not too much or too little.

… I wondered whether systems in the brain concerned with the perception (or projection) of meaning … systems underlying a sense of wonder … systems for appreciation of the beauty of art and science, had lost their balance in schizophrenia, producing a mental world overcharged with intense emotion and distortions of reality. … [A]ny attempt to titrate them, damp them down, could tip the person from a pathologically heightened state to one of great dullness, a sort of mental death.

definition: continuously measure and adjust the balance of (a physiological function or drug dosage).

Oliver Sacks does a fine job of defining titrate upon introducing it. Sacks doesn’t use much jargon, but when he does he readily helps out his lay readers with the likely unfamiliar term.

source: On the Move: a life by Oliver Sacks
2015. Borzoi / Alfred A. Knopf, New York


I marked a couple places in the autobiography where Oliver Sacks mentions books that look worth hunting up:

Mind of a Mnemonist by A. R. Luria
“I read the first thirty pages thinking it was a novel. But then I realized that it was in fact a case history — the deepest and most detailed case history I had ever read, a case history with the dramatic power, the feeling and the structure of a novel.”

Pride and a Daily Marathon by Jonathan Cole
“[A] virus … deprived [Ian Waterman] of all proprioception below his head. [Proprioception is the sense we have of inhabiting a body.] … When [Ian] sits, he must consciously hold himself erect so he does not fall forward … He may appear perfectly normal, but if the lights suddenly go out … he will fall helplessly to the ground [as Ian has compensated for his lack of proprioception by continually checking himself visually]. Over the years Jonathan [Cole] and Ian have formed a deep relationship — as doctor and patient, investigator and subject, and, increasingly, as colleagues and friends (they have been working together for thirty years now). In the course of this decades-long collaboration, Jonathan has written dozens of scientific articles and a remarkable book, Pride and a Daily Marathon, about Ian.”

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

word of the day: ostranenie

Speaking with the poet Graham Foust, interviewer Bryce Thornburg of Berkeley Poetry Review says:
I was really interested in the strategies of estrangement that you use — and I don’t mean that in the ostranenie sense — but I mean that with in a sort of doubling of language via in repetition but with a difference — maybe with a change in word class, or words within words, or something that might sound familiar from a previous part of a poem, or even things that sound familiar from, you know, pop lyrics or song titles or things like that.

Ostranenie is a piece of literary theory jargon. It does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, my favorite definition source since the Berkeley Public Library decided to subscribe.

Dictionary.com gives a one-word definition: defamiliarization

More helpfully, dictionary.com will pronounce the word for you.

Oxford Reference is more expansive:
[T]he concept refers to the techniques writers use to transform ordinary language into poetic language, which for the Russian Formalists is language which induces a heightened state of perception. Habit, according to the Russian Formalists, is the enemy of art, therefore to produce art the writer has to force the reader outside of the usual patterns of perception by making the familiar appear strange or different. … [T]he deadened senses of the reader [are] awakened by clever writing … [T]his process suffers from the logic of diminishing returns—what was shocking yesterday is all too familiar today … (this, as many commentators have observed, is the problem contemporary non-representational art also faces).

The term seems to have been coined by the Russian literary theorist Victor Shklovsky.

The interviewer did a decent job defining “ostranenie,” while claiming the poet was doing something other than doing that very thing, that is, defamiliarizing “things that sound familiar.”

source: Berkeley Poetry Review issue 42. 2012.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

word of the day: nainsook

… the fishermen dock
on navy blue
nainsook patchwork quilts
ready for love.

— Flavio de Araujo
translated from Brazilian Portuguese by Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

definition: A fine soft cotton fabric, a kind of muslin or jaconet, originally made in South Asia. Also: a garment made of this.

from the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word “nainsook” appears in the Portuguese as “nanzuque.”

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

word of the day: ventifact

… The bus veered south into
A land of lunar ventifacts and umbrella pines
… Rainstorms still pursued us.
Horizons turned to a calamitous black,
And the streets of obscure towns steamed
In the sun …

— John Ash

definiton: A faceted stone shaped or altered by wind-blown sand.

from the Oxford English Dictionary, which quotes J. W. Evans, “for any wind-shaped stone, we might speak of a ‘ventifact’, on the analogy of artifact.”

One might note the oddity of a wind-shaped stone being called "lunar" what with there being no wind on the moon.

source: “Stations,” a poem in In the Wake of the Day by John Ash

Sunday, May 31, 2015

pile of reading

It’s Not Over: getting beyond tolerance, defeating homophobia, and winning true equality by Michelangelo Signorile
I like Signorile. I liked his Queer in America. It’s Not Over is an attempt to take some of the air out of the LGBT Victory! balloon. Should the US Supreme Court recognize that gay people have as much right to families as non-gay people we won’t have won everything, Signorile hastens to remind us. We will have won something of great significance, but there will still be a lot of people who don’t like us, and we will still have to deal with them on a day to day basis in our schools, in our workplaces, in politics, and so on. Should this surprise anyone?

Reader Please Supply Meaning poems by Jim Murdoch
Many of the poems in Jim’s book are so simpatico with poems I’ve written (see: Fact) that I find myself editing Jim's poems in my head as though I had written them. Editing other people’s poems in my head (or in front of the poet herself) is not unusual for me, I have to say. But in this case I quickly found myself assimilating Jim’s project into my own, the arguments in his poems spilling over into my poems in ways I look forward to exploring.

Roots and Branches: contemporary essays by West Coast writers edited by Howard Junker
The essays in this anthology all originally appeared in Howard Junker’s literary magazine, Zyzzyva. I subscribed for a while and got the book as part of my subscription. Back in 1991 I wasn’t much into essays. I am rather more into essays these days.

Seriously Funny: poems about love, death, religion, art, politics, sex, and everything else edited by Barbara Hamby and David Kirby
As with any anthology Seriously Funny is a mixed bag. The tastes of the editors are rather more apparent than usual. The tone doesn’t always hit me right. But it makes decent reading.

The Portable Dante edited by Mark Musa
Edited & translated, that is. There are many translations to choose from if one wants to tackle Dante in English. This one seemed to read well when I picked it up in the bookstore, enough style to be poetry without being more trouble than pleasure. A poet friend has been working on his own translation, off and on over the years. And writing reactions to it as he works. Since I had this on my shelf I figured I would profit better from the fragments my friend shows me if I read somebody’s version of the whole thing. Besides, it’s one of those works everybody refers to and some point.

The Best American Comics 2014 edited by Scott McCloud
I’m familiar with most of the creators collected here and some of the works themselves, so maybe I’m on top of what’s best already? Worth reading.

The Family of Max Desir by Robert Ferro
Quite enjoying Ferro’s prose. The book is rather like one of those biographies that begin with the subject’s grandparents and fills tens of pages before it gets to the subject’s birth. Not a novel with a plot so much as a family saga whipped through in a couple hundred pages.

Masters of Sex: the life and times of Williams Masters and Virginia Johnson, the couple who taught America how to love by Thomas Maier
Subtitles sure are long these days. Kent and I have been watching Showtime’s Masters of Sex, the fictionalized TV series of the same name. It’s intrigued me enough to wonder about the real thing.

Portfolios of the Poor: how the world’s poor live on $2 a day by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford, and Orland Ruthven
There are fascinating human stories hiding behind dry prose.

In the Wake of the Day poems by John Ash
John Ash was a guest lecturer at UC Berkeley and he allowed me into his poetry workshop. I haven’t read a book by him in years and it’s time I caught up.

American Zen: a gathering of poets edited by Ray McNiece and Larry Smith
I do like the idea of Zen poetry, what sense I can make of that idea anyway. A plainness. A humility. Whether the particular poem is one I love is another thing.

Two Lines: world writing in translation; Passageways edited by Camille T. Dungy and Daniel Hahn
Every poem and story features is preceded by comments from the translator. Sometimes the preliminary matter exceeds the word count of the featured work by quite a bit. Still, I like hearing the translator’s thoughts, the whys, the bios.

Enizagam 2011
I’m trying to read more random literary magazines.

Berkeley Poetry Review 42
As a former member of the team, I try to keep up on the game.

Selected Poems by W. H. Auden
At a Poetry Circle meeting one of the regulars read from W. H. Auden. I know Auden has a lot of fans and I bought and started this book many years ago, but the first few pages didn’t make me go, Wow, so the book fell out of the pile. Now it’s back!

The New York Review of Books May 7, 2015
Found this left out on the curb up the street. It’s rather New Yorker-like in the quality of writing such that whatever is published is fairly interesting.

Super 8 a chapbook by Richard Lopez
Richard visited this weekend and left me a chapbook about Super 8 porn. “foreground / a tube of Vaseline”

Terms of Service: social media and the price of constant connection by Jacob Silverman
Social media is fucking us over? Of course it is.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

notes toward an autobiography by others

The streets of Ho Chi Minh City make for rather desperate exercise for even the most enthusiastic of pedestrians. Footpaths can vary wildly, and occasionally disappear into deep drains. When they are not serving as motorcycle parking lots they make excellent extensions of shop display space, and so the Saigon flaneur must spend much time walking in the road itself, right in the midst of the traffic, praying wildly that a bus or truck doesn’t come speeding up behind you.

When one is making plans to visit Saigon what seems like the most daunting part of walking the city is the crossing of streets. Typically one does not wait for a crosswalk signal or a traffic light or STOP sign, or even a break in the traffic flow, one just steels oneself and steps off the sidewalk. The traffic is mostly motorbikes and the drivers take note of you and swirl around you. I watched videos of this before we left for Vietnam and it looked crazy. But once we were doing it it made a kind of sense. This is not to say it’s a stress-free adventure, especially at night when the oncoming traffic consists of glowing cyclopean eyes, but you kind of know what you’re in for.

What stressed me out more than crossing streets was discovering that the distinction between street and footpath is, well, let’s just say it’s contingent. If the street beside which you are walking is one way and a motorbike pulls out of a driveway and the driver wishes to travel against the traffic flow he doesn’t go all the way around the block. He uses the sidewalk. Thus the footpath is an optional bike lane. And parking space. And dining area for sidewalk restaurants. My tummy felt queasy most the time I was in SE Asia and I did not have the resilience necessary to be constantly on the alert. When our itinerary said it was time to leave Saigon — I was ready.

quote source: Destination Saigon: adventures in Vietnam by Walter Mason

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

struggling against God

… his defenses against religious belief were going to crumble. And at about this time they started crumbling quickly. … the unbelief he had always thought his protection was in fact his prison.

I don’t think of myself as having defenses against religious belief. I haven’t built great walls, erected desperate barriers, locked doors, or armed myself against faith. Rather, faith puzzles and intrigues me. I wonder about it and look into it. Because I don’t get it.

I’ve heard this formulation before, that the unbeliever rejects God, struggles against the Lord’s intrusion into his life, fights not to believe. The easier thing would be relax and surrender. God will just come right in and take over.

This has not been my experience. Nothing about Christianity makes sense to me. I have to struggle to figure out what it’s trying to tell me. “Sin” is a piece of Christian jargon that doesn’t make any sense. An infant is born out of sin. It is sinful in the womb. Murder is also a sin. As is thinking. What, then, is “sin”? And that’s about as basic a piece of the Christian puzzle as exists. If sin is baffling, how am I supposed to get to God embodying himself as a mortal, then sacrificing himself to himself in order to absolve other mortals from sin?

C. S. Lewis, from Surprised by Joy:
You must picture me … feeling … the steady, unrelenting approach of Him Who I so earnestly desired not to meet. … I gave in and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed … the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England … kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting … eyes in every direction for a chance of escape.

The quote at the top of the post is from Alan Jacobs’ biography of C. S. Lewis. A couple pages later Jacobs quotes Lewis himself on the struggle to ward off God. The writing is certainly vivid. The “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting” body evokes a toddler in full-on temper tantrum. But what is it the toddler wants? What does keeping out this god do for him? Conversely, what does allowing this god in do for him? Well, I guess it allows him to stop struggling. Struggling is a lot of work; knocking that off would be a relief.

For me, all the struggling would be the other way. Every time I’ve tried to wrap my mind around the Christian equation it’s been a struggle. It’s a whole lot easier just to shrug my shoulders and say, “It seems to work for them. That’s nice. So long as it’s not hurting anybody. There are even some who say Jesus motivates them to do good in the world. I like good. People doing good is a good thing.” People do terrible things in the name of Jesus, too.

source: The Narnian: the life and imagination of C. S. Lewis by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Cambodia notes

I picked up Walter Mason’s Destination Cambodia in the library a couple weeks ago. I’ve been enjoying Mason’s stories. The title may be generic but the writing has personality.

When we were in Cambodia last November Kent and I did not take buses (the tour company’s hired coach doesn’t count), but the bus we took down the Mexico’s Baja peninsula a few years ago had loud movies playing so I could identify with this:

The bus driver played DVDs of Korean pop music for the whole five-hour drive, probably because there was hardly anyone on the bus and no-one seemed to care. In truth, he actually played only two DVDs of Korean pop, the same two, over and over again, obviously favourites of the young conductor who would often reach over to repeat Big Bang’s “Fantastic Baby.”

I looked up Big Bang’s “Fantastic Baby.” The boy band wears freaky costumes and I love the deadpan reading of that refrain: “Wow. Fantastic baby.”


So “Fantastic Baby” is Korean not Cambodian. We did a layover in Inchon on our way to Southeast Asia. That counts, doesn’t it?

On the other hand I’m now on the lookout for something else mentioned in Destination Cambodia:

Suong Mak was the author of a … novel that was thought to be the first ever in Khmer to talk about gay male relationships.

Mason recounts a delightful story about Suong Mak as a teen writing his first fiction (a ghost story) and his mother’s help in finding a publisher. Seemingly the search ends in disappointment. Two years later, having moved to the big city to attend university, Mak comes across his story in a bookstore. Not only did it get turned into a book, the publisher is happy to have Mak show up to ask about it and hand him over money, as the book is doing well.

I looked up Suong Mak. He has a blog, which is very much in Cambodian. Google Translate currently does a terrible job with Cambodian. Too bad. If it’s true the novel is “being translated into English,” I want a copy when it’s ready. I like the title: Boyfriend

source: Destination Cambodia: adventures in the kingdom by Walter Mason

Monday, April 06, 2015

Make Your Own Emily Dickinson Poem

The vastest earthly Day
Is shrunken small
By one Defaulting Face
Behind a Pall —

… [Emily] Dickinson often offered several choices for certain words in her poems: the “vastest earthly Day” might be “shrunken” small, but it might also be “shriveled” or “dwindled.” More provocatively, it might be “chastened.” … Dickinson [also] wonder[s] if the face should not be “defaulting” but “heroic” …

The vastest earthly Day
Is chastened small
By one heroic Face
That owned it all —

In the quote above James Longenbach first presents an Emily Dickinson poem in, presumably, the default version. Then he does what Dickinson must have done many times, if only in her head; Longenbach gives us the same (?) Dickinson poem using alternate words Dickinson herself provided in manuscript. The two versions read as different poems to me.

When I decided to read her the version of Emily Dickinson I committed to was The Complete Poems edited by Thomas H. Johnson. I had heard that in manuscript Dickinson poems will sometimes include alternate words scrawled next to the ones supposedly preferred (actually it is not clear sometimes that one word is preferred). But I figured I had to read Dickinson in some version and the edition most readily available was the one Johnson created, deciding for us the definitive version of every Dickinson poem. I figured if I fell in love I could pursue every scrap of Dickinson, but if love didn’t strike right away, well, I’d at least have a Dickinson as good as any.

Which makes me think. Might there be an easier way to find the Dickinson that’s right for you? One could create a computer program in which different Dickinsons are available, every one authentic. Click on a word and see it switch to an alternate. Maybe the Emily Dickinson you yourself make out of true Dickinson ingredients is the Emily Dickinson that speaks to you.

source: The Virtues of Poetry by James Longenbach

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

pile of reading

MOJO Music Magazine #254, January 2015
The local library has a subscription. If the CD that comes with the magazine hasn’t been lifted I like to give it a listen. The CD this time features what the MOJO editors consider some of the best new music of 2014. I’m listening to the CD right now. My favorites so far are “Turn it Up” by Robert Plant, “Keep It in the Dark” by Temples, and “Milly’s Garden” by Steve Gunn. I like the lyrics of “Turtles All the Way Down” by Sturgill Simpson, but the very country twang puts me off. Worth another listen, I guess. Now I will move on to reading articles.

Proving Nothing to Anyone by Matt Cook
This is my fourth Matt Cook in a row. At some point I picked up his first book of poems, In the Small of My Backyard. Must not have been terribly long ago, but I don’t remember the circumstances. So I got around to reading it — and was delighted! I enjoyed Cook’s second and third books and here I am one poem into Proving Nothing to Anyone.

Poetry July/August 2014, v.204 no.4
I’m working my way through the 2014 issues of Poetry. Worth the time.

Some Angels Wear Black: selected poems by Eli Coppola
Eli Coppola was a hot poet on the scene when I moved to the metropolis and started attending readings and reading at opens back in the 90s. She struggled with muscular dystrophy. This collection was published by Jennifer Joseph’s Manic D Press. Jennifer hosted the reading Poetry Above Paradise where Coppola was a star.

Seriously Funny: poems about love, death, religion, art, politics, sex, and everything else edited by Barbara Hamby & David Kirby
After spending months with Carolyn Forche’s bummer poems anthology, Against Forgetting: twentieth century poetry of witness, I needed something on a different track. I turned to this anthology, which came to me as a Hanukkah gift from Kent’s sister Kim. Whether I’ll love it or not, I’m already pleased to be listening to a new tune.

Arroyo Literary Review Spring 2012
This is the literary magazine of California State University, East Bay. It looks sharp and the reading has been good so far.

Americana: the Kinks, the riff, the road: the story by Ray Davies
Lead singer and songwriter for the Kinks Ray Davies was on his own in the early ohs. While my first conscious notice of the Kinks was their 80s hit “Come Dancing,” I discovered an appreciation for the Kinks catalog around the time Davies was living this memoir. The writing in Americana is a little diffuse but I’m liking Davies and look forward to reading more of what he says.

The Virtues of Poetry by John Longenbach
Discussions of poetry that focus on the number of stresses in a line are pretty much guaranteed to bore the fuck out of me, so I rolled my eyes when Longenbach started the book that way. He seems to be progressing to other aspects of poetry and with enthusiasm so I’ll stick with it. It’s a short book!

Driving Mr. Albert: a trip across American with Einstein’s brain by Michael Paterniti
What to make of this book? Paterniti befriended the medical doctor who did the autopsy on the body of Albert Einstein. In the process of the autopsy the doctor removed Einstein’s brain. What’s the brain been doing since?

The Selected Poems of Irving Layton
Why am I reading this? Randomness!

Destination Saigon: adventures in Vietnam by Walter Mason
I enjoyed Walter Mason’s Destination Cambodia so I’m following him back to his earlier book. Kent and I did spend the first week of our SE Asia trip in or near Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). What does Mason think about competing with motorbikes for the sidewalk? Will he tell us?

A Place I’ve Never Been: stories by David Leavitt
It’s been a little while since I read a Leavitt, so I’m reading another.

Friday, March 20, 2015

everything happens for an accident

The most important thing a poet should do is go into the well of themselves, their roots and refer to, for us, the grandmother or tobacco chewing uncle with whom she has to match wits to defeat his intent constantly, or whatever opinionated tyrant is survived, since everyone on this earth who becomes worthy of our notice has overcome whatever authoritarians the accident of birth foisted upon us.

— Leo Connellan
in his Foreword to Vivian Shipley’s Poems Out of Harlan County

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Word of the Day: Brichthorn & Clocynth

context: The poet Adonis is calling forth a better world.

darkness of the sea,
ignore this feast of corpses.
Bring the earth to blossom
with your winds.
Banish plague and teach the very rocks
to dance and love.”

The goddess of the sand prostrates herself.
Under brichthorn
the spring rises like clocynth from the lips
or life from the sea.

definition: For neither word is there a definition. I figured “brichthorn” was some type of plant. What animal has thorns? I didn’t need to know what it looked like. However, I had no idea what a “clocynth” was. A plant? A song? So I popped it into the query box at a couple dictionary sites. I was asked, “Do you mean ‘colocynth’?” According to dictionary.com a colocynth is “a plant, Citrullus colocynthis, belonging to the gourd family, of the warmer parts of Asia, the Mediterranean region, etc., bearing a round, yellow or green fruit with a bitter pulp.”

Once I’d hassled “clocynth” I went back to “brichthorn.” No dictionary website liked “brichthorn.” Could it be a typo? Do birches have thorns? Yes, it seems birch trees have thorns.

Are there any books without typos? Usually a typo is easy to correct mentally. Sometimes typos are so easy to correct mentally that the correction does not reach the page.

source: Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, edited by Carolyn Forche. 1993.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Word of the Day: Dolichocephalic

context: Francois Bizot is in Cambodia. He has been studying Buddhist practices unique to that country. He describes an acquaintance:

He was a young man, and I remember well his handsome dolichocephalic profile, the creamy white of his eyes standing out from his swarthy complexion, the strong red of his mouth spreading out onto his fleshy lips.

definition (Merriam-Webster): having a relatively long head with cephalic index of less than 75.

I suppose I have to look up “cephalic index” now.

This is what Wikipedia has to say: The cephalic index or cranial index is the ratio of the maximum width of the head of an organism (human or animal) multiplied by 100 divided by its maximum length (i.e., in the horizontal plane, or front to back). The index is also used to categorize animals, especially dogs and cats.

So our handsome young man had a long head, relative to something.

source: The Gate by Francois Bizot
translated by Euan Cameron

Sunday, March 08, 2015

“flight forward”

In an introduction to his translation of Cesar Aira, Chris Andrews describes Aira’s method:

Cesar Aira’s keener readers are familiar with the procedure that he calls la huida hacia adelante: flight forward. He has often said that he composes his novels by improvising a page or two a day, and that instead of rewriting, he attempts to correct the weaknesses or inconsistencies of what has been written by adding retrospective explanations. Imperfections serve to spur invention rather than revision.

This method sounds similar to the one I used when composing Thousand, which I posted on my LoveSettlement blog. Each day I wrote one hundred words. I wrote for one thousand days, ending up with a prose piece 100,000 words long. Each day’s 100 word post was not completely raw. I did not post until I was satisfied, revising and rewriting, if necessary, until I thought the 100 words worked. I did not go back and revise the previous day’s (or month’s or year’s) effort, however. I went forward. Nor have I gone back to Thousand to revise it. When it hit its 100,000th word that was its last word. I have read Thousand all the way through since it completed and it holds up pretty well for whatever it is. There’s a lot of fun writing there. I can see a kinship to Cesar Aira’s “Varamo.”

source: Two Lines, no.18: Counterfeits, edited by Luc Sante & Rosanna Warren, published by the Center for the Art of Translation. 2011.