Monday, January 29, 2007

Never Fully Getting Inside

Richard Ford speaking with Michal Silverblatt on KCRW's Bookworm:

MS: You’ve been with the hero of these books (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land), Frank Bascomb, for how many years?

RF: Twenty five.

What is it like to inhabit a character for that long?

Well, I don’t know if that’s the word I would use: inhabited. And indeed, over the course of three books, I have written other books in between. And so, it’s more of a matter of, first of all, going an fetching something that you think you used to have, which is to say a measuring voice, which is Frank’s voice for me. It’s more projecting it.

You know Graham Greene said that writers are people who impersonate other people and so that’s what I think I do. Without the notion of inhabiting. For me it’s more important to make something -- a character or a narrative arc -- that’s separate from myself, that I kind of operate at arm’s length a bit. I sometimes think it’s like Bergen and Charlie, you know, I’ve got my hand in his back and I’m making him say these things and I’m making his head move and making him respond, but never fully getting inside.
One of the painful things for me, is that Frank comes to know that he’s not going to be remembered. And that in the realm of a novel in which you’re the hero and you’re saying everything, you can feel very big. You know, the largeness of thoughtfulness, of meditation, can seem enormous, and yet in this book, Bascomb is going to be experiencing his own smallness, his own distance from himself. And it’s very, it seems to me, hard to do: to have the world contract to your own size when you’re the hero of a novel, narrated by yourself…in other words, that a certain kind of really-hard-to-earn humility seems to beset him at a certain point.

I think that that’s true. You know, the moral address of realistic fiction, at least as I understand it, is to say to the reader: pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. Because those things that are small, which we overlook because they are so familiar to us, will gain in stature and will gain, for us, a sense of moral responsibility when we notice them more fully. And then that becomes my task. My task is to make the minutiae of the book be felicitous, be interesting, be provocative, and yet at the same time, not promote them to a higher stature of importance—seen from the point of view of eternity—than we know they are.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

On a Path to Becoming Wind-like

Excerpt from a talk given by Shinzen Young called Understanding Impermanence:

The word for spirit in English is from the Latin, spīritus which is a translation of a Greek word, pneuma. Pneuma is a translation of a Hebrew word, ruach which means breath or wind. So when we say we’re on a spiritual path, people can interpret this in a lot of different ways. I like to interpret it literally. You are on a path to becoming spiritualis. You are on a path to becoming wind-like: powerful and insubstantial and unfixated.

The native people of the plains of North America have a natural way of expressing this idea. In the Sundance ceremony, you dance around a cottonwood tree. If you look at a cottonwood tree, it’s a little different from other trees. It has the ability to respond to the wind very immediately. With the tiniest little movement of wind, you can see the direction and magnitude of the wind at a very fine scale in the accelerations and decelerations of each little leaf in the cottonwood tree. You can see ruach in that tree. So you dance around that tree and look at that tree for four days. It gets you in sync with one of the flows of nature.

And why does that tree work that way? Well, if you look at the way the leaves are articulated on the stems, they are very pliant instead of being rigid. There’s a link between our equanimity, a kind of pliancy in our sense gates, so that the more equanamous we become, the more we literally vibrate with ruach, with spirit, with the wind, with the basic forces of nature.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sisyphus of Mississippi

From For Delta Librarian, The End by J.R. Moehringer, L.A. Times Staff Writer, September 23, 2006:

People call him a librarian, and he surely looks like a librarian, with his sedentary frame, thick eyeglasses, fastidiously trimmed hair and goatee. But, deep down, he feels like something else, something more. He feels like the Sisyphus of Mississippi. He feels like a superhero in one of his beloved comic books, even though he fights the forces of darkness with little more than night classes and meager grants, and he loses more than he wins; 30 years of that would make even Spiderman cranky.

He'll admit this much: He's done with the Delta. Born in Memphis, Tenn., raised in Webb, Miss., he's never lived anywhere else and he's ready for a change. He hates change, clings to his 1986 computer and keeps phone numbers in his checkbook because he refuses to figure out his cellphone, but today he's making the biggest change of all. Leaving the Delta. He's proud of his home, and desperate to escape it, and the contradictions about him only start there. Kind and rude, eloquent and reticent, he's an altruistic loner, a misanthropic do-gooder, a study in inscrutability straight out of Eudora Welty or William Faulkner.

He's a literacy crusader who's hard to read.

He used to love his job. Even back at the start, when he first got hired to drive the county bookmobile. It was 1976, three years after he'd graduated from Delta State, and though he earned peanuts, he felt important, because every time he piloted his cargo of novels and Bibles through the cotton fields, people with no running water and not enough to eat would come racing out to meet him.

Photo gallery

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Oscar Nominations

Best Supporting Actress
Adriana Barraza, Babel
Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal
Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine *
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
Rinko Kikuchi, Babel

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine *
Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children
Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond
Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
Mark Wahlberg, The Departed

Best Lead Actress
Penelope Cruz, Volver
Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
Helen Mirren, The Queen *
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Kate Winslet, Little Children

Best Lead Actor
Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond
Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
Peter O'Toole, Venus
Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness
Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland *

Best Director
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Babel
Martin Scorsese, The Departed *
Clint Eastwood, Letters from Iwo Jima
Stephen Frears, The Queen
Paul Greengrass, United 93

Best Picture

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Individual is Irrelevant to Art

From The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art by Joyce Carol Oates:

"JCO" is not a person, nor even a personality, but a process that has resulted in a sequence of texts. Some of the texts are retained in my (our) memory, but some have bleached out, like pages of print left too long in the sun. Many of the texts have been translated into foreign languages, which is to say into texts at another remove from the primary - sometimes even the author's name, on the dust jacket of one of those texts, is unrecognizable by the author. I, on the contrary, am fated to be "real" - "physical" - "corporeal" - to "exist in Time." I continue to age year by year, if not hour by hour, while "JCO," the other, remains no fixed age - in spiritual essence, perhaps, forever poised between the fever of idealism and the chill of cynicism, a precocious eighteen years old. Yet, can a process be said to have an age? - an impulse, a strategy, an obsessive tracery, like planetary orbits to which planets, "real" planets, must conform?

No one wants to believe this obvious truth: the "artist" can inhabit any individual, for the individual is irrelevant to "art." (And what is "art"? - a firestorm rushing through Time, arising from no visible source and conforming to no principles of logic or causality.)

Losing Oneself in the Process

"As fiction writers we split ourselves into parts: The self and the characters we write about all abide within us. At times, during the process of writing, it's possible to experience the disintegration of the self. This is the ecstasy of writing and of art, of losing oneself in the process of creating."

- Alice Hoffman, Character Study, Writers Digest Feb. 2007

Her most recent novel, Skylight Confessions, was published this month.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

No Pants Subway Ride

A group in called Improv Everywhere staged its sixth annual No Pants Subway Ride on January 13th in New York City. Participants are not supposed to reveal their secret mission - to give people a fun New York experience to laugh about - when asked by the fully dressed passengers "Where are your pants?" Instead they shrugged their shoulders, shook their heads and claimed to be having one of those days where you just know you're forgetting something but don't figure it out until it's too late.

One guy acted surprised by his apparel deficit when he pretended to wake up from a pantless subway nap. He was able to buy a pair of pants from another participant who was along for the ride in the role of trouser salesman.

During last year's event, eight people were arrested and handcuffed. The charges were dropped due to the lack of laws forbidding the wearing of underwear in public.

Check out some of the photos and stories from this year's mission as well as the group's other missions.

A Means of Transit and a Lasting Refuge

From Time's Magpie: A Walk in Prague by Myla Goldberg:

"Communism’s most enduring legacy lies underground. Prague’s metro is composed of three lines that roughly bisect each other at Prague’s center to form a sprawling, six-pronged subterranean constellation. The Communist conception of human nature may have been improvident but the Soviets were masters of subway construction. More than ten years after the dissolution of the Soviet regime, Prague’s metro is much grubbier than it once was but as efficient as ever, providing its citizenry both a means of transit and a lasting refuge in case of nuclear apocalypse.

The vertiginous depth of Prague’s subway tunnels is certainly due in part to the river they are required to pass beneath, but the ever-practical Soviets very likely intended the Cold War-era metro stations to double as fallout shelters. The stations are cavernous, their floors marble, their walls covered with brightly colored metallic tiles, each tile dimpled like a giant, space-age ashtray. The perfectly round bore of the massive subway tunnels calls to mind drilling machines lifted from the most speculative of da Vinci’s notebooks or the pages of a Jules Verne novel.
These profoundly subterranean stations are reached via epic, steeply angled escalators that plunge 150 feet underground. To minimize this distance, the escalators run at cartoonishly high speeds, making it easy to envision eyeballs or noses or hair being left behind as the escalator whisks away. To anyone accustomed to the steady plod of the American escalator, Prague’s version feels thrillingly unsafe: the heart accelerates at each embarkation and the phrase “to ride an escalator” reverts to its original, early twentieth-century meaning when mechanized stairs were reason enough to visit the downtown department store. Despite the escalators’ demonic speed it still takes an awfully long time to reach or leave the surface, but to walk rather than stand is strictly for Sherpas. There is time for lengthy plot descriptions of complex novels on these escalators; there is time for intense philosophical debate. It is easy to imagine love affairs beginning and ending in the time it takes to ride from top to bottom. It is not uncommon to see someone sitting on an escalator step as they ride, elbow resting on knee, hand cradling chin, asleep."

Friday, January 19, 2007

To My Surprise It Started Writing Itself


I'm a fountain of blood
In the shape of a girl
You're the bird on the brim
Hypnotized by the Whirl

Drink me, make me feel real
Wet your beak in the stream
Game we're playing is life
Love is a two way dream

Leave me now, return tonight
Tide will show you the way
If you forget my name
You will go astray
Like a killer whale
Trapped in a bay

I'm a path of cinders
Burning under your feet
You're the one who walks me
I'm your one way street

I'm a whisper in water
Secret for you to hear
You are the one who grows distant
When I beckon you near

Leave me now, return tonight
The tide will show you the way
If you forget my name
You will go astray
Like a killer whale
Trapped in a bay

I'm a tree that grows hearts
One for each that you take
You're the intruder hand
I'm the branch that you break

Hints of the Big Picture

When someone asks if you believe in God, they want you to describe the specific concepts you use to approximate your current perception of the big picture. However, a gulf looms between language and the aggregate of our memories, plans, hopes, fears, comforts, challenges, and preferences. It is not unlike the contrast between the cheeseburger pictured on the menu board and the one served to you in wax paper or what separates the glowing movie review from the two hours squandered watching a stranger’s thinly realized dream. So much of the trouble in our lives (personal, social, local, national, global) falls apart in this apparently insignificant space.

The question, which actually reveals more about the person asking than it can possibly reveal about the person who is trying to answer, boils the ineffable down in order to separate us into our neat, familiar tribes. It reduces the conundrums of the ages down to the equivalent of asking which football team you think will win the championship, which operating software you are running, or which discount retail store brand you embrace.

The inquirer is usually fishing for a simple yes or no response. Based on your answer, you might find yourself being guided down a simple decision tree to drill down to one of the traditional belief systems and possibly down to specific subcategories to determine where you fit. But all these distinctions seem to be factors of our capacity for language specificity. Being creatures and therefore created in some mysterious manner (isn’t sexual reproduction mysterious enough), it seems there would exist serious limitations for our minds to ever comprehend the big picture fully – not that we are incapable of getting hints of it. Isn’t this why we have poetry, literature, music, science, and math? But attempting to communicate these hints – even trying to pass them on with noble intentions – generates sparks from the friction of words grinding against one another.

Does a leaf need to have clear concepts of twigs, branches, trunks, and roots in order to have a complete and satisfying experience of its brief life? Maybe it is enough to just enjoy the pull of the sun, the comfort of the breeze and the other leaves swaying with you, the unexpected drama of dusk, and perhaps even the lilting descent to the cold ground.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

So Startling

To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.

- Emily Dickinson

Happiness Must Include Unhappiness

"I treat the happiness I have now with great respect, great appreciation, because I know how fragile and precarious it is - how easily it can go. I am more aware that happiness is a composite total, that it is not some sort of sweet, safe heaven. To mean anything, it must include unhappiness."

Monday, January 15, 2007

A Kind of Prison

"When I was a child I was constantly being told that various habits of mine - I suppose including reading – made me less black than I should be. But the idea that you can be less authentic than you are is nonsense. There’s no such thing. And to struggle under that idea, to concern yourself constantly about your identity seems to me a kind of prison. And it’s one that white people don’t have to anything like to the same degree. They have a kind of existential freedom that they don’t even notice because it is what every human being should have and deserves to have and is natural. But if you don’t have it, if you‘re constantly wondering instead not what it is to be but what it is to be black, then you’re completely cornered. So I suppose that all my characters to some extent are looking for identities. Constantly when I’m in interviews I’m being told, 'Your books are all about the search for identity,' and I always think My gosh, my books are all about that search being entirely pointless.”

- Zadie Smith, discussing her novel, On Beauty, with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW's Bookworm.

Neruda Songs

"I realized it was a kind of force that I was listening to," he said recently. "It wasn't the trained voice so much that impressed me... it was the soul behind it."

- Peter Lieberson talking about hearing the voice of his wife, Lorriane Hunt Lieberson, on a recording before meeting her. He composed 'Neruda Songs' for her based on five love poems written by Pablo Neruda.

About Alice

This is from a review written by Peter Stevenson in the New York Times Book Review about Calvin Trillin's new book "About Alice":

To read a first-person narrative too often involves being clamped in an embrace by a writer who means well but insists on meaning too much. The banality of ego.

And yet.

Sometimes we come across a piece of first-person writing that shocks us back into a restorative innocence vis-à-vis the human heart. The secret of Calvin Trillin’s slim but walloping book, “About Alice,” is that its structure follows the contours of an old-fashioned piece of reportage, using a scrim of detachment to build tension and, when that is pulled aside, revealing an underlying core of enchantment. “About Alice” is an unabashed love letter to Trillin’s wife, Alice, who died in 2001 at the age of 63 while awaiting a heart transplant, after a battle with lung cancer 25 years previously had left her heart weakened by radiation.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Carrots as Sticks

"For the last few years I've tried to force myself to write at least one page every day, which doesn't sound like much but it's actually pretty hard to manage. Because I'm not allowed to do a make-up day. I can't do two pages the next day. The punishment for not completing my page is that I have to eat a vegetarian meal the next day. One of the big boons for me as a writer was smoking. But when I turned 40 I decided I had to stop smoking. Then all the problems with stopping smoking appeared and one of those included weight gain. So I do all these healthy things, and I guess I look at the unhealthy lifestyle as the reward. I really do set up all kinds of hoops to jump through with carrots at the end, including TV shows that I want to watch. I have to finish my page before I watch the show. Lost is the show that I'm currently obsessed."

"I usually have more than one thing I'm working on at once -- I've been working on three different novels. When I get stuck on one, I hop back and forth. It's sort of freeing: I can say I'm abandoning this thing that I hate forever and I'm moving on to something that's good. I'll find that I'll go back to [the other project] in a day or a week and like it again. But that moment of wanting to trash something -- that Virginia Woolf moment when you have to be stopped from filling your pocket with stones -- comes pretty regularly for me. Switching is probably a good thing."

The Wrong Reasons

"If you have a success you have it for the wrong reasons. If you become popular it is always because of the worst aspects of your work."

Friday, January 12, 2007

Puzzles vs. Mysteries

Malcolm Gladwell explores the difference between a puzzle and a mystery in the context of modern information sharing, concealing, and overload using the Enron scandal as his primary example (The New Yorker, 1/08/2007).

He writes, "If things go wrong with a puzzle, identifying the culprit is easy: it's the person who withheld information. Mysteries, though, are a lot murkier: sometimes the information we've been given is inadequate, and sometimes we aren't very smart about making sense of what we've been given, and sometimes the question itself cannot be answered. Puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don't."

He draws comparisons to intelligence gathering and analysis during World War II and Watergate and notes that several people were able to see through the energy company's obfuscation by examining publicly available financial reports. He closes with this delicious tidbit about a paper written by business students three years before the troubles erupted and the company declared bankruptcy.

“In the spring of 1998, Macey notes, a group of six students at Cornell University’s business school decided to do their term project on Enron. “It was for an advanced financial-statement-analysis class taught by a guy at Cornell called Charles Lee, who is pretty famous in financial circles,” one member of the group, Jay Krueger, recalls. In the first part of the semester, Lee had led his students through a series of intensive case studies, teaching them techniques and sophisticated tools to make sense of the vast amounts of information that companies disclose in their annual reports and S.E.C. filings. Then the students picked a company and went off on their own. “One of the second-years had a summer-internship interview with Enron, and he was very interested in the energy sector,” Krueger went on. “So he said, ‘Let’s do them.’ It was about a six-week project, half a semester. Lots of group meetings. It was a ratio analysis, which is pretty standard business-school fare. You know, take fifty different financial ratios, then lay that on top of every piece of information you could find out about the company, the businesses, how their performance compared to other competitors.”

"The people in the group reviewed Enron’s accounting practices as best they could. They analyzed each of Enron’s businesses, in succession. They used statistical tools, designed to find telltale patterns in the company’s financial performance—the Beneish model, the Lev and Thiagarajan indicators, the Edwards-Bell-Ohlsen analysis—and made their way through pages and pages of footnotes. “We really had a lot of questions about what was going on with their business model,” Krueger said. The students’ conclusions were straightforward. Enron was pursuing a far riskier strategy than its competitors. There were clear signs that “Enron may be manipulating its earnings.” The stock was then at forty-eight dollars—at its peak, two years later, it was almost double that—but the students found it over-valued. The report was posted on the Web site of the Cornell University business school, where it has been, ever since, for anyone who cared to read twenty-three pages of analysis. The students’ recommendation was on the first page, in boldfaced type: “Sell”.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Not Computers

“…people think they’re not computers because they have feelings and computers don’t have feelings. But feelings are just having a picture on the screen in your head of what is going to happen tomorrow or next year, or what might have happened instead of what did happen, and if it is a happy picture they smile and if it is a sad picture they cry.”

- Mark Haddon, from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Iroha Uta

This ancient Japanese poem contains each of the phonemes from the Gojuuonzu (50-Sound Chart) and illustrates a core concept in Buddhism - impermanence (anicca). School children in Japan are taught it the way American children learn to recite the alphabet.

Iroha Uta

Iro wa nioedo, chirinuru wo
Waga-yo tare-zo tsune-naran?
Ui no okuyama kyookoete
Asaki yume miji, ei mo sezu

The Flower Song
Translated by Shinzen Young

Bright indeed the flowers may be, but surely not for long.
In this life, who indeed, will not someday be gone?
Passing beyond the furthest peak in the Province of Shifting Streams,
No longer will I drunken speak, nor gaze at shallow dreams.