Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The NSA according to NCIS: Just a Few Bad Apples

I've been a fan of NCIS since Season 4. Before that I tuned in once in a while and tuned right out again. Tony told the same jokes over and over until Gibbs--and I certainly supported him in this--slapped the back of Tony's head. Ducky sailed down a babbling creek of historical trivia. Abby pretended to be wasting Gibbs' time until Gibbs pretended to get mad, at which time she produced some brilliant piece of forensic deduction. Kiss. Caf-Pow. Gibbs, exercising his facial muscles not at all, hurried off to save the world.

As my older son says, NCIS proves that the stupidest stuff on TV lasts the longest. 

I normally fall for TV shows that are summarily cancelled--The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, Firefly, Veronica Mars, Rubicon, The Dresden Files--not hits.

When I finally got hooked on the NCIS cast, my younger son said, See? They grow on you. They grew on me all right. Like kudzu. I caught up via USA reruns and have been watching ever since. When Cote De Pablo announced that Ziva would wander off into the sunset, I might have been upset, waiting as I was for the real coupling of Ziva and Tony, not the fake one of Season 3, but I couldn't give up the show. No way. I was addicted to these charming if wooden characters. Maybe wooden people are relaxing at the end of a day.

Now? Now I might be able to walk away.

Tuesday's show unveiled Ziva's replacement, Ellie Bishop, a cute but not-too-cute youngster played by Emily Wickersham. She'll compete in nerdiness with McGee, be too young (God willing) to take Ziva's place with Tony, and give Gibbs a chance to do what he does best--develop talent in his condescending stick and carrot way. So far so good.

But Ellie is an NSA agent and will remain one, dividing her time between the-agency-that's-in-all-your-business and Ziva's desk (although Ellie mostly sits on the floor, endearing her to those of us charmed by the common touch).

Ellie is an unashamed apologist for the NSA. Her exchange with Abby in Tuesday's show made that pretty clear:

Ellie stands in the doorway of Abby's lab. When Abby notices Ellie, Ellie asks who Abby is talking to.

Abby: I was talking to myself and a . . . pen [spyware she is trying to trace]. Now I'm not talking anymore because who knows who's listening?

Ellie: Who do you think is listening?

Abby picks up a clipboard and writes, NSA.

Ellie laughs, charmingly. Oh no, don't believe everything you hear. We don't randomly listen to conversations and phone calls. 

Abby writes BS on the clipboard.

Ellie: I'm serious. We need a court order just like you. We've had a few bad apples but we're good people out to uphold the law and make a difference. Look. I can prove we're here to help.

Abby: So you haven't bugged my phone?

Ellie laughs.

Notice something here. This conversation is almost balanced. Abby is suspicious and remains suspicious, and Ellie doesn't deny that Abby's phone is bugged. Maybe she can't be sure, given the bad apples.

Where are we now? Because of this near-balance, I'm tempted to give the NSA the benefit of the doubt, as part of me has given NCIS, the Navy, the Defense Dept. and the US government the benefit of the doubt all along, because they are fictionally represented by NCIS's agents de charm, which now include Ellie.

Whoever in the NSA has drinks with Donald Bellasario is counting on Ellie.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Swimming in Numbers

I just finished reading The Circle, Dave Eggers' new novel. I didn't like it much. It moves slowly. It makes as if to surprise the reader with shocking developments and does not. In parts it is almost unbearably heavy-handed. I say almost because I read it to the end. I sat at my desk for a few minutes afterward, then turned on my laptop and removed myself from Facebook, Twitter (I'd never managed to twitter anything, so this wasn't much of a loss), Linked In, and GoodReads.

The Circle is the name of both the book and the fictional company the book examines, a massive data-mining corporation whose "campus" is located in Northern California. Having lived in Palo Alto for 36 years, I can tell you that the company might be based on Facebook or Google or some new enterprise that's cropped up since I moved away. Employees of the Circle have access to free gourmet food, gyms, swimming pools, and parties, as I believe Google employees do, but--because Eggers feels free to exaggerate wildly--Circle staff also enjoy traveling circuses, dorm rooms stocked with their favorite liquor, daily rock concerts, exhaustive health care, and an aquarium in which ghoulish experiments are conducted on marine life.

The protagonist, Mae Holland, a woman in her twenties who secures a job at the Circle by appealing to a college friend, moves rapidly up the ladder from answering user questions by email to being a spokesperson for the company. As spokesperson, she uses the camera hanging around her neck to provide a nonstop tour of the Circle's activities and--she learns to tolerate and even celebrate this--her own. (The camera remains on even while she uses the toilet since all the viewer can see is the back of the stall door, but, mercifully, the sound is temporarily turned off.)

While answering user questions, she is supposed to extract a rating from the people she helps, and if that rating is, say, 97, she asks what she might have done better. That is, she pesters the person she's emailing until that person ups her rating to 100. Mae is called on the carpet for not participating actively enough in company life, so she learns to say yes to email invitations, send complimentary "zings" when others get good ratings, and constantly provide her opinion on surveys, all while she is performing her stipulated tasks. How many messages can she send and answer in an hour? An astounding number.

The Circle is all about numbers. One group is counting the grains of sand in the Sahara, just because it can. When Mae has sex with a colleague, he wheedles her into giving him a rating of 100.

Mae and her parents receive stellar healthcare, but only after they agree to wear a permanent wristband that monitors every change in their body chemistry. Mae markets an ex-boyfriend's antler chandeliers using Circle methods without asking him first, and when the on-line attention this generates drives him off line and out of town, she takes along her hundreds of thousands of viewers (remember the camera around her neck) as she hunts him down for what she believes is his own good.

Mae is too easily persuaded during the course of this book that all information should be public. All information. No information should ever be destroyed. She is led by the nose in this direction and is enlisted to lead others likewise. From her lips drop the Circle's developing philosophy: "Secrets are lies, sharing is caring, privacy is theft." When the company moves toward . . . well, too much.

Mae has a secret and very special lover throughout. I guessed who he was the first time he appeared. You will too.

***My husband just finished this book and suggests that the identity of this lover is meant to be obvious. It illustrates one of the themes of the book: nonexistent privacy.***

So, not a very good book: a protagonist so naive she's hard to invest in; a cast largely made up of bad guys and worse guys; only a few complex characters, and they inhabit the book's margins; a plot that is driven by the progression of Circle projects.

As a cautionary tale, however, The Circle is brilliant. At the heart of it is our need to be seen. If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it . . . if we do something, or make something, and no one knows, no one compliments us, gives us a grade or a rating or a ranking on Amazon's bestseller list, have we really acted in the world?

I'm asking myself if I can live with a little less being "seen"--as limited as that seeing may be. I'm wondering if I can do what I do just because I want to do it.

Eggers eventually makes the point as well that when private companies know everything about us, private companies are in control. The NSA is scary enough. And I suppose you could make an argument that it's already in private hands. But Eggers implies that things could get much, much worse.

I don't see much hope for personal consistency. Here I am blogging via Google's Blogger. I use gmail too. Aargh.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Re-routed by a Dead Language

Last week, outside our kitchen window. Photo by Warren.
My last blog post put me into a tailspin, inducing BLOG-AVOIDANCE.  When I tried to track how my life changed after I suffered the small academic failure of doing badly in Greek, the drawing I made looked a lot like this spider web, spun outside our kitchen window last week. I traveled sideways as often as out. I got lost.

I'll continue down one resulting route a little way.

At Stanford in those days certain instructors seemed to channel questions to their TAs--Gordon Craig, for example, from whom I took Nineteenth-Century German History. Socially illiterate as I was, I sensed that his office hours were window dressing, not to be used.

Antony Raubitschek had at least one TA. I remember a tall, dark-haired woman who (in the days when we were all trying to look like Joan Baez) never appeared without a scarf tied over her hair. Her sharp tongue scared me. Maybe it occurred to me that she was a contagion I might catch.

But Rabitschek himself might have welcomed questions. He invited us to his home, after all. In his book-lined front room, I felt struck dumb, like Zechariah visited by the angel Gabriel. I didn't believe the news I was receiving, that a room like this might someday be mine, that I could become a scholar and spend my life reading books. Even before I started having trouble with Greek, I couldn't believe in that scholarly future. I might be a scholarship girl, but I'd never be a scholar. Maybe not believing in that future played a part in not living it.

The only thing I managed to say that night, over tea and cookies for about ten people, was to Raubitschek himself: "Your cat wants in."A pure white, long-haired cat was sitting outside a sliding glass door, staring first at Raubitschek and then, because I noticed her, at me. "Oh yes, that's Snowball," Raubitschek said, and opened the door.

When I was teaching at community colleges, I did everything I could to get my students to come to my office. Few enough did, struggling as they were with minimum-wage jobs and, in some cases, chaotic home lives. But some came. Some talked to me after class. Class, the other kind, makes a difference, always, in how confident one is, how worthy of help one is able to feel. I must have looked to my students a little like Raubitschek looked to me. A little. 

I've started studying Latin these days. Have I mentioned this? After Latin (in a decade or so), maybe a return to Greek. At the end of chapter 1 of Wheelock's Latin, 7th ed. is this basic advice:

"Read aloud and for comprehension, trying to get the sense of the entire passage. Remember that subject-object-verb is a common pattern . . . but word order is quite variable in Latin and so you must pay careful attention to word endings . . ."

I've already described how inflected languages work. They are complicated. Where was a paragraph like this one in my beginning Greek text? Why not something like this big-picture advice that admitted the difficulty of the task? Why didn't Raubitschek offer advice like this himself? I suppose he assumed we'd all already studied Latin and had learned the mental multitasking that construal amounts to.

So I dropped Greek. If I'd just said to myself, oh well, you're good at some things but not others, so what!, I might have stayed the course. My Western Civ teacher had, for example, told me that I was among the best students he'd ever had. He seemed a little loony, so I didn't take that very seriously, but I did have some countervailing evidence that construing Greek badly wasn't the end of me.

Unfortunately, Greek was tied to the first and still the strongest notion I had of a future. I was going to be a minister. In Raubitschek's living room, an academic career had suggested itself and had clearly scared me almost to death. I continued to think that I wouldn't strive to do work that accrued credit and a good life to me, but do something for others. This is what I was used to, and stemmed more from codependency than from altruism.  I'd been caring for a sick father all through high school--he'd been caring for me, too, of course, in his way--and tending to a disappointed mother as well, mostly by steering clear of her. After Greek, this need to minister had to be redirected, and this was not so easy. A quarter later I left Stanford, and it was a year-and-a-half before I went back to school at U.C. Berkeley, no longer a scholarship girl. I didn't need a scholarship, however. In those days, a Berkeley education (featuring one of the best English depts. in the country) cost only . . . well, I don't want to depress you. My life has been good, full of books and children and Warren. BUT . . .
I've been thinking lately about turning points, how I stumbled into the life I've lived, how the failure to construe, for example, led to further failures and some successes, to doors closing and others opening.

"The unexamined life is surely worth living," says Adam Phillips in the prologue to Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. I wouldn't have conceded that until a few years ago, when I began appreciating people who seemed to lack self-consciousness, or had set it aside. I'd always examined my life quite a bit, a little too much. I'd been a little hard on myself. Now I think I'll ponder, in a measured way and not too long, the life I didn't live. Phillips says I've been doing this all along:

"But is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not."

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Construal--Part Two--The Other Dead Language

So there I was, in a classroom facing the Stanford quad, unable to stay afloat. Translating French on my feet had never been a problem in high school. Later, translating Spanish would not be either. But construing Greek was just too difficult--or complicated--or something.  What I didn't realize at the time is that, unlike me, most of my classmates had studied Latin, a less ancient but equally dead language that was also inflected. They'd had years of practicing this construal thing.
Some knowledge of Latin was once considered to be the mark of a civilized person. Which isn’t to say that without Latin you couldn’t make it in the world. Ben Johnson famously said of Shakespeare, for example, that although he had “small Latin and less Greek,” he was the “Soul of the age.” But Latin was believed to help, not just in reading inscriptions during your grand tour of Europe, but in understanding how language worked, even in learning how to think.
Maybe I mean that Latin was the mark of a civilized man. Before publicly funded secondary education, it’s not my impression that the girls’ finishing schools of the merchant and landed classes in the U.S. and Britain favored Latin as a subject. French, yes; some history, maybe; a little English literature; the netting of hats and embroidery of the family crest; piano playing and water coloring— but Latin not so much.  
Through the first half of the twentieth century, however, Latin was commonly taught in public high schools in the U.S.  My sister took it in its final days in our neck of the woods, an integrated, working-class neighborhood of Sacramento, in the early 60s. I think she quite enjoyed it. But by the time I might have taken it, about eight years later, it was no longer part of the curriculum. Sputnik was one cause of its demise. Math and science, subjects that could be put to actual use, were suddenly vitally important, whereas studying Latin was not, or so some governmental agency argued.
It turned out that many of my peers in Introductory Greek at Stanford had attended prep schools. Since they were knee high to grasshoppers (and even before they started smoking Gauloises), they had been construing Latin daily.  At the time I didn't know what a prep school was. Well, I must have had some idea. I'd read A Separate Peace in high school, for example.  But my background created a filter  between what I'd read about and what I actually grasped. The young man who habitually sat next to me in class asked me out, and gradually, without posing too many embarrassing questions, I caught on to who he was and where he'd come from. It turned out that I didn't like him much. Maybe it was the chain smoking.

There must have been a few in my class who had taken Latin in public high schools located in richer neighborhoods. Maybe there were one or two who were in the same boat as I was but who caught on more quickly. Maybe others fell away too, dropping Greek as I did in the second year. I was too mortified to notice.  

I'm not blaming my failure on anything but my own incapacities, one of which was the inability to approach Prof. Raubitschek for help. 

However it happened, letting go of  Greek was a turning point. More about that later.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Construal (it has nothing to do with the female body) -- Part One

In 1971, as a freshman, I walked into an Introductory Greek class at Stanford with my brand new Chase and Phillips, the standard text.  Other students—there were about 15 of us—figured they didn’t need their books the first day and so didn’t bother standing in the long lines at the bookstore. That was their first mistake. Their second? Showing up for the second class without committing the alphabet to memory, Chapter 1 of Chase and Phillips.

Our teacher, one Antony E. Raubitschek, a Viennese scholar of international reputation who was committed to teaching undergraduate courses, already near retirement but still riding his bicycle, briefcase in a rear basket, to and from campus five days a week, took this opportunity to lecture us on the responsibilities of scholarship. Without raising his voice he managed to make even those of us who had done our homework feel that we had better change our ways and get serious or there would be hell to pay. The hell? We would disappoint Antony E. Raubitschek.

I didn’t, not right away. I made it through Chase and Phillips and, in spring quarter, Xenophon, which we ate in very small bites. But by fall quarter of my sophomore year we were reading Plato’s Apology and Crito and then, in winter and spring, Homer.  I didn’t make it through winter quarter.  It was the first class I ever dropped, my first academic failure, my first hint that either my education or my abilities were not all that they might have been.

What I couldn’t do was construe. I could, but I couldn't. In my dorm room, I could figure out what the words of a passage meant in absolute terms and what they meant in particular sentences because I was learning to recognize the case of the nouns and adjectives and the tense and mood of the verbs.  Greek is an inflected language, which means that word order varies dramatically, and meaning depends on the form of the words. The word for old man, for example,  γερων, is  spelled that way only in the nominative case—if the old man is the subject of the sentence.  It is spelled differently if something belongs to the old man, if someone delivers something to the old man, if someone hits the old man over the head, and if the old man is being greeted. Once you recognize that the word for old man has an accusative ending, for example, you scan the sentence for a nominative noun, in order to discover who is clobbering him.

Class consisted of reading through four or five previously assigned pages. Raubitschek called on us in whatever order he saw fit and we were expected to construe the lines he named: to translate them, interpret them, and, if were really on the ball, interrogate them. (That, anyway, is what raising a question of interpretation would be called now. I can't remember what we called it then, or if we called it anything.)

I could figure these complexities out, but I couldn’t hold onto them, not for the number of pages we were expected to prepare for each class. The number of new words in a four or five-page assignment was challenging enough. I couldn't seem to hold on to all that vocabulary. But harder still was making sense of the words while Raubitschek was staring at me, even though I already had, even though I knew what the passage was about.

I considered of course writing my translation right into my book, under or over the lines in question, but I saw that my neighbors were not doing that. Their books were pristine. When called upon they were truly reading what was on the page and stating its meaning, not always perfectly, but close enough so that Raubitschek could offer up a correction or two and go on to the next victim (I mean learner). 

More of this later. At present I feel the tiniest bit nauseated. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Accidents of Birth Redux

Below is part of my most popular blogpost. (Okay, we're not talking viral here.)  I wrote it the day William and Kate got married, but it applies as well to the newest member of the royal family. Forgive the recycling. 

When I was teaching at a community college in east San Jose, California, my classes were mostly made up of first and second-generation immigrants—from Vietnam and Mexico, Central America, Africa, the Middle East. A fair number were not yet citizens.  Some may have been illegal. I had no way of knowing and didn’t much care.

Discussions in my Critical Thinking classes often wandered, or maybe came down to, the topic of birth.  Many students believed, or found it expedient to say, that America was the greatest country in the world.  Some had risked their lives to get here. If their parents both worked two jobs to keep food on the table, if they themselves worked nights and weekends while going to school, that was temporary, a small price to pay.  Eventually they would be every bit as American as, say, George Bush.

Occasionally a student—one in particular, I remember, was from Palestine--suggested that he would never be considered truly American by people who were born here. And for this reason his opportunities—it took a lot of courage to say this—might be more limited. Some students, usually also immigrants, were enraged by comments like this. People who never spoke in class raised and waved their hands until I called on them.  My native students, especially the white ones, typically kept quiet.  I don’t know if they feared the speaker was right, or looking into their own hearts, knew he was.

In the interests of transparency, in Critical Thinking classes especially, I made it a policy during the first class session to out the most general of my views on life, the universe, and everything. After that, however, I tried hard to keep them to myself.  Discussions about birth and human value almost always drove me to break my rule. “Who decides where and in what circumstances we’re born?” I said at least once a semester. “Who deposited me in the body of a white baby girl with a particular set of parents in mid-twentieth-century Sacramento, California, USA?”

Usually about half the class replied in unison: “God.”

“Okay,” I said, “maybe so, but does that have anything to do with what I deserve from life, how comfortable or uncomfortable I ought to be, how happy I am?  Did God choose my birth based on my virtues?”

Some confusion here, but most students ultimately agreed that we get what we work for, that life, starting from birth, not from some nebulous place before birth, is a meritocracy—just like the United States of America. I don’t believe that for a second, but I didn’t go down that road.

“So we have no business pretending that we’re inherently better than others or less than others based on the details of our birth?”

Hesitant agreement. 

“What if you don’t believe in God, or at least not in a god who’s the Big Master Planner? Doesn’t that mean that where you’re born, who your parents are, all that stuff, is just random, a crap shoot?”

Occasionally a student brought up karma and reincarnation at this point, and I invited her to explain those ideas to us. 

I never let this discussion go on too long.  Luck—and that’s what this is all about—is a deal-breaker for some, the first domino that knocks the rest down.  I had good reasons in a class like Critical Thinking to be luck’s temporary spokesperson, but I didn’t want to jar that first domino. “All I’m saying is that the circumstances of our births may be accidental, and even if they aren’t, unless we had previous lives--" I nodded to any Hindu or New Age proponents—“our births say nothing about our fundamental value. We don't earn them.”

If this discussion changed the direction or tenor of my classes, I couldn’t pretend then, can’t pretend now, to say exactly how.  But I remember this morning, as Kate and William's son lines up to become  the King, that his birth was an accident, too.  Does he deserve all that will come to him? No. Do I? No. Does a child born today in the Congo or Bangladesh or Rio’s favelas? Probably not, but those new babies matter as much as the royal baby boy.

Here’s where I go off the rails.

Those children matter more.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Bearing the Unbearable--Cheryl Strayed
I just got back from Fishtrap, where this year's impressive line-up of teachers and speakers included Cheryl Strayed. I didn't much like her memoir, Wild. On the other hand, I loved her novel Torch, in which she carefully told an utterly convincing story about the effects on a family of a mother's death. 

I would have been curious about Strayed whether I'd read her books or not, fascinated as I am by her triumphal facebook posts. Over the last year these have announced the purchase of a new home, trips all over the world, and have featured endless photos of Strayed with her arm around other writers of note.

Some people collect gossip about musicians and actors and politicians. I do some of that too, I guess, but more often I follow writers, to see how they manage their lives, to guess if there's something in them deeper than the self-promotion that's so necessary now, to decide whether they're writing to understand the world or to make their name in it, to figure out all those things about myself. I have changed my mind about Cheryl Strayed's character weekly, so I looked forward to last Friday's keynote speech with no small interest.

I have rarely seen a woman with so much self-confidence. Strayed swept into a room of hiking boots and Birkenstocks wearing a black cocktail dress and holding a spiral notebook of index cards, which she flipped through inconspicuously while giving her speech. I wondered if the index cards were different when she talked to writers rather than to the general public. It seemed to me that she had some points she particularly wanted to make to us, the 150 or so people crowded together in the hall/cafeteria/common room we spend so much time in at Fishtrap. Maybe confidence helped her project that desire for a personal connection.

As far as I was concerned, she began badly. Writing, Strayed said, is a lot like hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. This metaphor seemed so forced that I was sure, after listening to Strayed for 30 seconds, that I wouldn't learn a thing from her. But I kept listening. The room was so packed that I couldn't have fought my way out of it anyway.

The PCT stretches from Mexico to Canada, and Strayed covered a lot of it. She was drawn to that long, strenuous hike in the same way she was drawn to writing. She had to exert herself to walk the PCT just as she had to write--no matter what. So she bought the correct hiking equipment and flew from Minnesota to the Mojave Desert, where she spread her stuff out on the bed of a motel room and packed all of it into a new backpack. She put on her brand new hiking boots and would have walked out the front door except that she couldn't lift the pack. She'd imagined sunsets and birdsong and a soundtrack of the kind of music you hear when you get a massage, but she met with pain and exhaustion. The first few days were hell. The whole experience was really, really hard.

One step at a time she surrendered to the discomfort of aching, bleeding feet and skin rubbed raw by the straps of her pack and kept moving ahead. When she writes, she says, she forces herself to surrender daily to her own mediocrity. She learned to write through reading--she mentioned her MFA mentor Mary Gaitskill as well as Alice Munro--but when she sat down to produce something equally fascinating, she didn't. All she could do to solve that problem was keep going. "The only thing worse than writing a novel that sucks," she decided, "is not writing a novel."

Surrender not only to your mediocrity, she said, but to the story only you can tell, your truest truth, the truth only you can offer. If you begin with what's true, you'll end with what's truer. Speak from your "burning core." Strayed's core story has been the death of her mother at 45 of cancer. Strayed has written about it in order to bear it. Her writing explores "how to bear the unbearable"--acute loss, the heaviest of all backpacks. "Art is the consciousness we bring to our lives."

From her iPad, Strayed read a letter written in 1938 by F. Scott Fitzgerald to a young writer named Frances Turnbull:

You've got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly . . . This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.  

Be vulnerable, Strayed also said. Your readers will love you for it. "Get used to being in the company of fear." The mail she has received from readers of Wild has been overwhelmingly positive. Only a few have objected to her episodes of sex and drug use because, she believes, she has been so honest about them.  Her friend, writer Steve Almond, said during a class I took from him in April that Strayed practices radical exposure--I think that was the phrase--and I have to admit that I sometimes welcomed Strayed's revelations and sometimes didn't. I was often uncomfortable for what I thought was no good reason. If you want to sample radical exposure a la Strayed without tackling one of her books, take a look at an essay she wrote for The Sun called "The Love of My Life."

In the end, I wondered if I could ever value my own experience enough to expose it with such missionary zeal. I'd rather bring my emotions to bear in fiction. As to Strayed's character, I think she believed every word she said. She would have written Wild just as she did if Oprah Winfrey didn't exist. I admire that. And she convinced me that writing a book about your core story is like hiking for hundreds of miles in new boots carrying a heavy pack. It's really, really hard.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Killing: My Daughter Says Some Smart Things (Not for the First Time)

Today I posted the following on the facebook page for "The Killing."

I only made it through 15 minutes of the new season last night. I think I'm over stories about the rape and murder of young women. While the detective is hunting down the killer and we're cheering him or her on, more murders of young women and countless more brutal rapes are being committed. Rarely does someone in these stories say, maybe this one guy isn't the real problem. Maybe our culture is sick. Maybe our culture produces sick men. Enough.

Note my pronoun agreement problem in the third sentence. "Him or her" refers to the detective not the killer. Which led to this response:

What the hell are you talking about? Who is cheering the killer? People watch this show because of the twist and turns and the outstanding characters that Enos and Kinnamen portray.

A familiar argument surfaced:

Our culture also produces sick women, but this is just a fictional crime drama not a documentary on all our societal ills.

To which I replied,

Right. It's only fiction. But the stories we tell each other and gravitate toward say everything about us.

Another fan of the series told me I should really give the show another chance, to which I said:

I watched the first season. I think I've got the picture. Linden is a fascinating character. Much good stuff. But the 14-year-old with her head nearly cut off? This I do not need.

Actually I watched the second season as well.

Getting into arguments on Facebook is not usually a productive enterprise.  BUT THEN . . .

my daughter, Mary, who in her spare time answers phones (after many hours of training) for a women's crisis line in Portland, chimed in:


I love you, Mom.

You're making an argument no one really wants to hear.
The bottom line is that popular media perpetuates myths of violence against women, while neglecting to explore the realities. The myths feel better, are more entertaining, and place less blame on the common man/common culture. The realities feel worse: full-bodied shame, guilt, and horror. The truth is also a call to action. The truth requires something from us.

Unfortunately, we're all too busy watching television to think about how to help the neediest people.

Reasons to have children: They educate you. They are more articulate than you are. They tell you they love you on facebook.

P.S. Thanks for the moral support from friends when I posted the same initial message on my homepage of facebook.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Zeitgeist: The Spirit of the TImes in Books

I've never studied German although my father was born in Germany, and things German are the closest that I have to a heritage. (My mother's provenance, prior to the flatlands of northern Texas, is unknown to me.) I don't like those polysyllabic German nouns or the oversized egos that sometimes go with them. Who would become a Germanophile when your mental salon could be peopled by Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Pablo Neruda? Who likes cabbage and pork?

Some of those overlarge German nouns have, however, become indispensable. Zeitgeist is one: time
Mynah Bird (
plus spirit: spirit of the times. Matthew Arnold, the darkling-plain guy, characterized the zeitgeist of Victorian England as change and insecurity. The beginnings of the Industrial Revolution were no fun for anyone except those with capital to invest and a crackling fire to go home to. Gender roles changed in the working classes and calcified in the upper. Darwin--why didn't he just stay home?--arranged things so that people who found comfort in church pews on Sunday mornings could no longer do that without an occasional visit from the mynah bird of cognitive dissonance.

It was a confusing time, and not surprisingly, it became the era of the three-decker novel. It took a lot of pages to deal with what all this uncertainty meant for personal relations. I've read more than my share of these novels. You can say what you want about them (why those ridiculous names--Uriah Heep, Mr. Slope and Mr. Quiverful, Gwendolyn Harleth?) but they did take their zeitgeist seriously.

Apparently we humans respond in all kinds of ways to the reigning zeitgeist. In the seventeenth century, for example, when orderly life based on reason was looking like a distinct possibility, Leibniz (German!) and Newton (English) came up with the principles of calculus at more or less the same time, living in different countries, never having met or corresponded with one another, and without access to Google.

Lately I've been reading contemporary novels looking for clues as to how we might weather (and if we might weather) the tiny dovetailing problems of economic collapse, environmental destruction, population overshoot, and resource depletion. Some novels are political in an overt way, making political action the center of their characters' lives. Others, especially novels written in English, tend to represent general turmoil as conflicts in personal relations. What's going wrong in the world is also going wrong, maybe in disguise, in living rooms. (As always) here are some thoughts:

1.  Female Unitarian ministers are the new generals. They lead by imperfect example and by inviting people with diverse views to sit down together around a plate of cookies.  See The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout and Jamesland by Michelle Duneven.

2.  Tragic deaths occur more by accident than intent. Plenty of people may still be writing murder mysteries, but on the literary side, cars get knocked out of gear and run over loved ones. See The Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison and, again, The Burgess Boys. What we're facing in the next decades isn't the payback for new mistakes, but the wages of old ones, run out of control.

3.  The "problem of masculinity"--see dovetailing crises above--may be solved by gentle men. I don't mean men in nice clothes and expensive shoes, but men who let others' pain get to them. See Burgess and Evison and Jess Walter's books. In Walter, even (especially?) the guys carrying guns are gentle men.  See as well Jack Driscoll's The World of a Few Minutes ago for diagnosis of aforementioned problem and promising medicine.

Three thoughts are as many as I can offer today. That's one short of a Sunday sermon. (I logged a lot of time in church pews.)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Crossword Newbie

I started working crossword puzzles about two months ago.  Since my siblings and two of my kids love them, I thought crosswords would give me some backup material when the conversational well ran dry. I hate games, but puzzles aren't so bad, and this kind involves only me, in private, against the New York Times, or Will Shortz, I guess. No dining room table face-offs. Crosswords are also supposed to be good for aging brains.

Now I'm addicted.

Here are some things I've noticed.

Crossword puzzle creators believe that all puzzlers are either Mensa members or wannabes. How do I know this? From the variety of clues that mean dumb, as in the following interchangeable synonyms, one appearing as a clue for the other: clod, nincompoop, bozo, dummkopf, lamebrain, oaf, simp. The word Mensa is a favorite answer to clues along the lines of organization of smart  people.

Puzzlers also do not like to think of themselves as geeks, clues for which are dweeb, twerp, and nerd. They are civilized--that is, they are not thugs, an oft-repeated answer to the clue riffraff. And they are certainly not mentally ill since they know the vernacular for insane: bonkers.

You'd have to be a little insane, however, to want to keep straight words as similar as
  • Agra--home of the Taj Mahal
  • atar or attar--perfume
  • Atra--razor made by Gillette
  • antrum--a hollow in a bone
  • Aktay--a tributary to the Volga 
Puzzlers, and this is probably no surprise, are either already old or getting old fast. For every clue like Rapper ___ Jon (answer: Lil), there are five along the lines of 
  • Star of Gunsmoke: James Arness (this series ran from 1955 to 1975).
  • Friend of Lucy: Ethel Mertz (I Love Lucy ended in 1960).
  • Univac's predecessor: Eniac (the first general-purpose computer, last used in 1955).
Clues are often purposely misleading. In a puzzle I worked yesterday, the answer to the clue Explorer and Navigator was SUVs. I got it. Ha!

There are a lot of sports clues. I recommend Google.

QED (big favorite in crosswords): People who work crossword puzzles consider themselves to be aging, sophisticated (as opposed to geeky), very smart, and of sound mind--even though they watch (or once watched) an awful lot of TV. Crossword puzzle creators accommodate.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The End of Writing School, or What Happens after You Learn (Most of ) What Pete Fromm Has to Teach You

Seaside, Oregon, where Pacific's winter residency is held.
I graduated from the low-residency Master of Fine Arts writing program at Pacific University in June of 2009, or almost four years ago. I've returned to about half the summer and winter residencies since, the last time as recently as January, when I holed up in a hotel room in Seaside and worked on a story, taking breaks to eat lunch with current students and to attend a few craft talks and readings. The teaching at Pacific is excellent, the faculty outstanding, but I think I've been going  back for something besides additional instruction and fellowship, something I didn't get while I was in the program and won't find there now.

Writing school is all about what not to do. In his craft talks and workshop comments, Pete Fromm, a wonderful teacher and an even better writer of fiction and nonfiction, conveyed to me a whole host of don't's, mixed in with a few do's. I once wrote them down in a list I called "Pete's Aesthetic," from most obvious (to me) to least.

  • Start a story with direct action. 
  • Starting a story with a dependent clause is lame.
  • Avoid hedging, qualifying language—for example, “seemed to.”
  • Weed out as many “to be” verbs as you can.
  • Avoid language that points to cause and effect, and therefore to explanation, e.g. “so.” 
  • A phrase like “at 2:00 this morning” screams “info dump.”  (Info dumps are lame.)
  • Don’t force information into dialog.
  • Fully imagine physical gestures and movements so as to avoid descriptions like “she closed her eyes hard.”
  • Using a phrase like “her cousin” for someone the reader already knows is named Diana creates distance (usually a bad thing).
  • Economy serves drama.  Include information, dialog, all elements of fiction only where they make the most impact. 
  • Action should unfold in real time. Not “the movie was so noisy that Frankie almost didn’t hear the doorbell.” But instead, “Frankie clicked the mute, listened, and asked Allison if she’d heard the doorbell.”
  • Small transitions are often needed to reduce the reader’s feeling of disjointedness.
  • There’s no need to explain the motivation behind every movement. Movements usually explain themselves.
  • Exclamation points are bad.
  • Don’t state meaning.  If the reader doesn’t know what the story is about without the writer’s telling him, the story is in trouble.
  • Find better ways to indicate time passing than clock readings.
  • Details about the history of characters can’t seem randomly placed. They have to be integrated into the action of a story. 
  • Sense details can be more randomly placed.  They are sometimes more evocative that way.
  • Overused shorthand for thoughts and feelings—e.g. “she drew a blank”—should be avoided.
  • Images move readers more if their impact is unfiltered through a character’s mind.  (This confused me, but I think what Pete meant is that even when your characters are very thoughtful people, you still want to protect readers from having an image interpreted for them.  Readers want to figure out for themselves why, as in Pete’s story “Hoot”--in Dry Rain--seeing an elk head mounted on a wall would disturb the protagonist. The protagonist himself should not tell us why.)
  • Characters do think and have insights, but it’s stronger to show these insights to the reader through action and dialogue.  Pete: “When a thought would never be spoken or acted out, these are the killer spots to go inside the character’s head.” 
  • It might be OK to describe emotions that wouldn’t show up in the scene you’re in, in order to set the scene.  (This came up when I read Richard Bausch’s story “Consolation,” in The Fireman’s Wife.) 
  • Pete’s most severe allergy is to the naming of emotions. If you find yourself saying, Sally was angry, stop!  Show Sally’s anger.
  • And, of course, characters should never cry.

MFA programs teach craft, and I seriously doubt if anyone is better at that than Pete. What results (if you're lucky and don't mind 20 or 30 revisions) is a particular kind of eventful and thrifty, even elegant, story, one of the best kinds of stories, but not the only kind.

So that's one thing I believe I missed at Pacific--learning to appreciate different kinds of stories. I chose my own reading list, of course, and it was diverse, but what I was encouraged to write and admire was not. And if now I want to give Nabokov a miss, or Cormac McCarthy, I don't believe it's entirely my  fault (although I do take credit for objecting to the scarcity of grown women in their books).

I'm not worried about being trapped by these boundaries. I've been reading for half a century, and I'll keep reading until the day I die. Writing too, I hope. I have plenty of time to broaden my horizons--with Jack Driscoll's stories, for example. Jack was another of my advisors. He subscribes, I think, to most of Pete's rules, but as a teacher he tends to be less prescriptive. He delivers the rules in a softer voice. And he himself writes a different sort of story altogether. His work may be an example of the old advice, learn the rules before you break them.

The more important thing I believe I missed at Pacific, and the thing I keep making fruitless trips back to find, has to do with why I write and how I might continue to write day after day, why I am drawn to face my fears on the page and why those fears sometimes defeat my efforts to keep my butt in my desk chair. I could try to list them here, but I'd just be describing their corners, the bumps on their irregular surfaces. Most of them I can't even name. So I'm going to bring someone else's voice in here, Bonnie Friedman's, author of Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life.* Friedman earned her MFA at the University of Iowa.

Stories are machines inhabited by a god. School pointed out the cranks and spindles. . . . The method was mostly cautionary; it was easier to see where a story was broken than where it ran smooth. . . .

This was writing school but we did not talk about writing. We talked about what had got written. We came to find it faintly embarrassing to hear how these words came to be on this page. The writer's vision, the vocabularies we wished to dwell in, the hints of dreams and memories that haunted the edge of our work--verboten, not discussed. . . .

How to turn on the switch in ourselves that made writing possible? How to transform the texture of life--the heat shimmer of a highway in which everything attenuates and billows skyward, every solid thing a form of smoke--into the lucid corridors and conclusions of a short story? How to write despite fear? Questions we did not ask. . . .

So many of us were good in school, and we wanted to be good in school some more. We needed someone to say, Don't be good in school anymore. Be done with school. Be in school, but be done with school. Writing teaches writing. Your writing will teach you how to write if you work hard enough and have enough faith. 

Friedman suggests that MFA programs are not set up to meet the needs she describes above and may never be. She has met these needs either by socializing with writing colleagues (as opposed to teachers) or by writing into and through everything she can. Each of us eventually dukes it out with her own psyche in private, she implies, or makes friends with it, or both. Marvin Bell, one of the poets on Pacific's faculty, says that to learn to write, you must first, or simultaneously, learn how you're wired. How your mind works, or doesn't, I think he means, and how it might be made to work. He has some suggestions for how to do this, but I don't think they apply very directly to fiction. 

I won't be going back to Seaside in January or to the Pacific campus in Forest Grove in June. What I need to learn, they don't teach. I am getting a lot of help now from Kim Stafford, God (or whoever) bless him. I've been in his yearlong Fishtrap workshop since July. He is both showing and telling me what sanity and openness have to do with determination. His workshop will end, too.

Eventually I'll reach what Richard Rodriguez calls in Hunger of Memory "the end of education"-- the word end pointing two ways, toward education's purpose on the one hand, and on the other, toward the dock from which one embarks on one's own, all baggage jettisoned.

*Harper Perennial, 1994, pages 54 and 60.