Thursday, August 30, 2007


by Charles Simic, who was announced this month as the next U.S. Poet Laureate

I grew up bent over
a chessboard.

I loved the word endgame.

All my cousins looked worried.

It was a small house
near a Roman graveyard.
Planes and tanks
shook its windowpanes.

A retired professor of astronomy
taught me how to play.

That must have been in 1944.
In the set we were using,
the paint had almost chipped off
the black pieces.

The white King was missing
and had to be substituted for.
I’m told but do not believe
that that summer I witnessed
men hung from telephone poles.

I remember my mother
blindfolding me a lot.
She had a way of tucking my head
suddenly under her overcoat.

In chess, too, the professor told me,
the masters play blindfolded,
the great ones on several boards
at the same time.

From Charles Simic: Selected Early Poems. Copyright © 1999 by Charles Simic.


I recently ate alone in a café connected to a popular independent bookstore in DC. The white noise of the multiple conversations surrounding me was a deliciously impenetrable ambient word stew, perfect for reading.

A couple sat to my left. Their meals arrived while I looked over the menu. I ordered the butternut squash ravioli stuffed with goat cheese because it came with corn bread. The space between our tables was so narrow that it was more conceptual than physical. A narrow negative space that we would ignore if we were all together: the couple, me, and the two women sitting alone on my right who were talking into their cell phones while they ate.

I opened a book that I’d already started reading, but my eyes moved over the same sentence again and again, its meaning refusing to flow along the usual circuit. I was distracted by the heavy silence between the couple.

Then man spoke first. He told her that the meal proved their maturity. He told her that his final gift to her would be to remember her in a favorable light. He paused now and then and I could tell without looking at him that he was fighting back tears. He told her that even though the divorce was now final, he still wanted her to consider him as a friend she could call if she ever ran into trouble.

She said that she had asked for no mayo on her sandwich. She scraped it off and tried to get the waiter’s attention to ask for spicy mustard. I wondered if she was regretting her order. There was no evidence that she was regretting the divorce.

I pictured her telling him that she needed something more from him. More attention. More warmth. More zing. She repeating the need until it felt like she was nagging him. But still nothing. Maybe a couple of awkward attempts at some overly literal response to the words she'd used to approximate the problem. Then nothing at all. The opposite of the vague something that was beginning to feel selfish and silly.

Then she found herself being drawn toward someone who could fill the lack, the unmet need she’d been repeatedly broadcasting. I imagined him being angry when he found out. He focused on the other man, the betrayal, the sex. And then she realized that he simply wasn’t capable of providing what she'd been struggling to ask from him. She watched from a safe emotional distance as he missed the point entirely. Time went by. Their lawyers negotiated the details. Their careers were both going well. There were no children to complicate matters.

They had a quick hearing in front of a judge. Just a formality. They decided to grab a bite to eat. They were silent when they stood up to leave. Neither of them had any idea what would come next, although they were already tangled up in the details of their jobs, projects they'd started in their new homes, and plans they had made to get together with friends over the weekend.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Our Capacity for Empathy

Richard Flanagan discussing his most recent novel, The Unknown Terrorist, on KCRW’s Bookworm:

"I don’t know why this is but over the last several years we’ve lost our capacity for empathy, except if it’s presented in the most histrionic and manipulative way through the media. We seem to have become strangely callous to the horror around us. And I did want to create a character who the reader would feel was sort of an every-woman-every-man sort of character who would lead the reader to think what would it feel like if it was me they came for next? Because increasingly, the currency of the day seems to be lies. And the lies are always directed against the weakest and the most powerless. And the lies seem to serve--at the end of the day--power and money. And yet we have slept walked through all this."

Choosing Evil

"No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks."

--Mary Wollstonecraft

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Consciousness Writes Reality

From As She Climbed Across the Table, a clever satire by Jonathan Lethem about a campus love triangle between a physicist, her social anthropologist boyfriend, and a black hole created in the physics lab:

“Everything is only potential until consciousness wakes up and says, let me have a look. Take for example the big bang. We explore the history of the creation of our universe, so the big bang becomes real. But only because we investigate. Another example: There are subatomic particles as far as we are willing to look. We create them. Consciousness writes reality, in any direction it looks—past, future, big, small. Wherever we look we find reality forming in response…I think there is a principle of conservation of reality. Reality is unwilling to fully exist without an observer. It can’t be bothered. Why should it?”

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

How To Be A Poet

(to remind myself)

by Wendell Berry

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill--more of each
than you have--inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your work,
doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

From Given: New Poems © Shoemaker Hoard, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Nothing Can Be More Dangerous Than Nothing

"Humanity's always been uncomfortable with zero and the void. The ancient Greeks declared them unnatural and unreal. Theologians argued that God's first act was to banish the void by the act of creating the universe ex nihilo, and Middle-Ages thinkers tried to ban zero and the other Arabic 'ciphers.' But the emptiness is all around us — most of the universe is void. Even as we huddle around our hearths and invent stories to convince ourselves that the cosmos is warm and full and inviting, nothingness stares back at us with empty eye sockets."

--Charles Seife, author of Zero: The Biography Of A Dangerous Idea

The Gold is Right Here

"The basic notion of lojong is that we can make friends with what we reject, what we see as 'bad' in ourselves and in other people. At the same time, we could learn to be generous with what we cherish, what we see as 'good.' If we begin to live in this way, something in us that may have been buried for a long time begins to ripen. Traditionally, this 'something' is called bodhichitta, or 'awakened heart.' It's something that we already have but usually have not yet discovered.

It's as if we were poor, homeless, hungry, and cold, and although we didn't know it, right under the ground where we always slept was a pot of gold. That gold is bodhichitta. Our confusion and misery come from not knowing that the gold is right here--and from always looking somewhere else. When we talk about joy, enlightenment, waking up, or awakening bodhichitta, all that means is that we know the gold is right here, and we realize that it's been here all along."

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Ethics of Eating

Barbara Kingsolver discussing her new book—Animal, Vegetable, Miracle—with Krista Tippett on Speaking of Faith:

Ms. Tippett: Now I'm looking at the sweep of your writing over, say, the last 10 years. It seems to me that that September 11th also kind of formed the sense of urgency that you have now. You talked then about the prideful wastefulness, our prideful wastefulness as a nation. I think you just described that in more detail.

Ms. Kingsolver: Sometimes I think it's prideful. Sometimes I think it's just clueless. I mean that to describe myself as much as anyone. We don't have a clue sometimes about how or what we are wasting. It's so easy for us to have, for example, foods that were grown on the other side of the world and brought to us, without any idea who grew it, who worked for what low wage to harvest it, who had to breathe pesticides in order to put it on a truck. You know, those questions have — a curtain has been drawn over the whole process so that we've come to look at our food as a product. It isn't. It's, it's all…

Ms. Tippett: Those are moral questions.
Ms. Kingsolver: It's all a process and those are moral questions. If we care to draw back the curtain and look, it isn't all bad news. I think the subject of food seems daunting because there are so many different questions, so many different problems. And that's something that really compelled me about writing this book. I love to start with a huge unanswerable boggling kind of question and see if I can whittle it down into the shape of a really good yarn. You know, I just love to see if I can give it a plot and make you laugh all along the way and maybe make you cry at the end, and create something that will invite you in. And then when you're finished and you close the book, maybe you'll step out into the world in a slightly different way and ask your own questions and answer the questions in your own way.
And this from Small Wonder, her collection of essays written in the wake of September 11th:

"Something new is upon us and yet nothing is ever new. We are alive in a fearsome time, and we have been given new things to fear. We've been delivered huge blows but also huge opportunities to reinforce or reinvent our will, depending on where we look for honor and how we name our enemies. The easiest thing is to think of returning the blows. But there are other things we must think about as well, other dangers we face. A careless way of sauntering across the earth and breaking open its treasures, a terrible dependency on sucking out the world's best juices for ourselves — these may also be our enemies. The changes we dread most may contain our salvation."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Phil Hansen's Art

"An art school dropout, Phil Hansen works as an X-ray technician by day, spending all of his spare time and money on his art...His breakthrough piece was a time-lapse video of a two-day project called Influences. He painted 30 pictures on his own chest, one over the other, with each picture representing an influence in his life...Hansen often uses the technique of pointillism, in which the canvas is dabbed with tiny bits of color, rather than fluid brush strokes, to create a larger image. But he gives pointillism a modern twist. You might call it "kinetic fragmentism" — pointillism in motion." -- People of the Web

As of April 30th 2005

A Moment

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Concentrating, Being Nice, and Being Terrified

Insights from my in-flight reading:

“For me, it’s about concentration, right? Now, I’ve done scenes that people are like, ‘Oh, that’s so heavy. Do you stay in character? Do you take it home with you?’ I don’t. I do it and I get it done. It’s really just about concentrating very hard.”

—Clive Owen, Details

“You don’t have to do a lot to be seen as nice. I guess some of these people must be such rampant pricks that people are amazed when you say hello. I don’t know why people like me, and I don’t know if I want to know. That might be the kiss of death. I’d rather people not know a lot about me and go see the movies.”

—Matt Damon, Entertainment Weekly

“I think your work can be great when you’re completely terrified and don’t know at all what you’re doing. Took me seven, eight years to figure it out—I’m a slow learner. Acting to me now is interesting because I feel like I’ve achieved a base level of brutal competence.”

—David Duchovny, Entertainment Weekly

Saturday, August 11, 2007


by Patrick Phillips

After the biopsy,
after the bone scan,
after the consult and the crying,

for a few hours no one could find them,
not even my sister,
because it turns out

they'd gone to the movies.
Something tragic was playing,
something epic,
and so they went to the comedy
with their popcorn
and their cokes,

the old wife whispering everything twice,
the old husband
cupping a palm to his ear,

as the late sun lit up an orchard
behind the strip mall,
and they sat in the dark holding hands.

[American Life in Poetry: Column 124]

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Watermelon Snow

A guidebook for the Rocky Mountain National Park warns against eating the pink snow which can be found along the Trail Ridge Road in August:

The color is caused by thriving communities of algae. The snow may look and even taste like watermelon, but it is actually a concentration of radioactive chemicals and has a laxative effect.

Matt and I didn't encounter any of this suspicious snow today when we hiked to Mills Lake.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Made Up of Scenes

“I think that all books, like film, are made up of scenes. Then you have to kind of meld them together in some way that builds the characters as you go along. I tend to kind of focus on character. I’m interested in two or three characters and how they kind of grow while I’m writing and then how they interact and that creates a story.”

Saturday, August 04, 2007


"The first draft, for me, is a difficult part of writing. If I can get through a fairly decent first draft, then I work and revise. And that’s about ninety percent of what I do, is revision."

A Dirty Little Secret in the Center of Humanity

"One does not need to go looking for silence. One does not even need to become still. You just realize that everything's swimming in silence. All the sound is swimming in silence. That silence, that's the sound of reality. And a mind that's thinking can never know how silence operates. Silence created everything you see. You look into the stars, you look into the galaxy, it was all created without a thought. Silence did it through no thought. There was another intelligence operating. There was no belief. There was no should, no shouldn't. There were no good ideas or bad ideas. But what was created was of a precision and complexity that minds have been trying to understand for millennia and still can't catch up with it. That's what I mean when I say a mind cannot know what life is like when life is not lived according to the mind. The only thing a mind can know is life lived according to the mind. It can't know otherwise. And when you really touch upon it, what most human beings start to see is that their whole life--and specifically their whole spiritual life--has been a movement away from this--what I call a dirty little secret in the center of humanity. The dirty little secret in the center of humanity is what is true without thought. And there's a great big emptiness, an enormous silence that's just waiting. And you notice that it's the same silence that's looking through your eyes. That which is looking through your eyes actually has no problem. We move into a totally different way of being. A way where being itself instead of thinking is guiding each action."

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Never Forget. Never Forgive.

Filming has been completed on Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd which is one of my favorite musicals. There is no way it could be more riveting than the pared down arrangement we were lucky to see on Broadway a couple of years ago in which the cast doubled as the orchestra. When Patti Lupone wasn't singing, she was playing the tuba or striking a triangle dangled from the yarn she was knitting into a red scarf. But I still can't wait to see what Tim Burton does with Stephen Sondheim's deliciously dark and twisted story. The film cast sounds fun and includes Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd), Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Lovett), Alan Rickman (Judge Turpin), and Sacha Baron Cohen (Signor Pirelli).

Novel Resonance

Chitra Divakaruni writing about how reading 300 novels as a National Book Awards fiction judge provided new insights into the novel form:

It is this resonance, finally, that separates the successful novel from the others. The cast of major characters may be small or large, clowns or kings. The backdrop may be modest (a room) or ambitious (a continent). The vocabulary may be simple or flamboyant, literary or colloquial. The melody may be created by a single flute, or performed by an entire orchestra. But through it all, there's a sense that what we're seeing is not all that this is about.

The novel continuously opens into something larger than the specifics that form the boundaries of the story, though paradoxically these specifics must be concrete and convincing if we are to intimate a larger truth through them. Reading it becomes a three-dimensional experience, beginning in the book and ending in ourselves. Such a novel, while it is a mirror of, and a commentary on, a particular event, people, country or time, is on some level about each one of us, our central truth. Each successful novel gives a special flavor and shape — and tone — to this truth, but does not limit it to these. In this it is similar to the bell, which shapes sound without enclosing it.

I Still Find I'm Yearning for It

"People say very easy things to me like 'there's usually a bag of money in your films.' But that represents that yearning for something that's not necessarily going to be good for you, but you stretch for it. And the kind of background I come from, it's kind of very much part of your mentality. I come from a working class family and I wanted to get out of that working class environment. I wanted to get into this world of the arts. I yearned and yearned for it. And I still find I'm yearning for it even though--to other people's perspective--people would regard me as being successful. But I still yearn for that. I still feel like I'm sort of trapped in my background in a way. And yet on the other hand, you want to get back to it in some way, as well, because its values are often what you relate to more closely than more new, learned values. So there's always that tension going on. And everybody I know who's come from a similar background to me who's ended up in the arts, has a very similar feeling."

--Danny Boyle discussing his newest film, Sunshine, with Elvis Mitchell on KCRW's The Treatment.