Wednesday, January 17, 2018


This Shanghai grandpa, my new hero, is the apotheosis of funkiness. The grandkids are pretty awesome too. The song, "Phur" ("Fly") by Anu Ringlug, won the Song of the Year in Tibet in 2017. Bonus track: The original artist video dubbed with English lyrics:

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Sue Grafton: An Appreciation

In the final days of 2018 I was saddened to hear about Sue Grafton, who died on December 28. I was a fairly recent convert to her works. I had been vaguely aware of her name showing up on the best-seller lists. She was the author of 25 mystery novels, starting with A is for Alibi, and progressing through the alphabet right up to Y is for Yesterday. I had not read any of them until about a year and a half ago, when someone donated a bunch of used paperbacks to the local library-sponsored second-hand bookshop. I saw them there and picked up several for 75 cents each, which turned out to be the bargain of the year as far as reading materials are concerned, and started me on a long and satisfying reading journey. 

The novels feature a feisty, irreverent private detective named Kinsey Millhone. Grafton started the series in 1982 and wrote roughly a novel a year until 2017. (In an interview with Mora Macdonald of the Seattle Times, she commented wryly on how that played out: “When I started, she was 32 and I was 42,” Ms. Grafton said. “And now she’s 39 and I’m 77, which I just do not think is fair.”) 

In any event, I was taken with the books. They are inventively plotted and keep you turning the pages, as mystery novels are supposed to do. But what I appreciated about her writing, more than the stories she was telling, was the clarity and vividness of her descriptions. What Kinsey Millhone sees and feels in the course of her investigations goes a very long way toward making her a credible crime-solver. Often as I was reading the books I found myself marking particular passages and then typing them out for the sheer pleasure of it. Even when the descriptions have nothing to do with the case at hand, they serve the purpose of indirect characterization, offering evidence of a Millhone’s particular brand of sensitivity to the world. For example, here is a passage from early in B is for Burglar where Kinsey is just out for a run:

I generally do three miles, jogging along the bicycle path that borders the beach. The walkway is stenciled with odd cartoons at intervals and I watch for those, counting off the quarter-miles.  The tracks of some improbable bird, the mark of a single fat tire that crosses the concrete and disappears into the sand. There are usually tramps on the beach; some who camp there permanently, others in transit, their sleeping bags arranged under the palm trees like large green larvae or the skins shed by some night-stirring beast.
            That afternoon the air seemed heavy and chill, the ocean sluggish. The cloud cover was beginning to break up, but the visible sky was a pale, washed-out blue and there was no real sign of the sun. Out on the water a speedboat ran a course parallel to the beach and the path of the wake was like a spinning ribbon of silver winding along behind. At this distance, the low-growing vegetation looked like soft suede, with rock face showing along through the ridges as though the nap had worn away from hard use.
There’s nothing self-consciously artful about the language or the syntax here. But there are thoughtful, intelligent choices that Grafton is making about what to include and what not to include that make the scene come to life in my imagination. The speedboat, for example, is not strictly needed; it does nothing to advance the plot. But it does a lot of other important work. It helps to snap the afternoon run into focus. And, taken at face value as the thoughts of the protagonist rather than the verbal choices of the author, it demonstrates the alertness and  attentiveness of the narrator in a way that makes me feel that I like her and trust her.

Here’s a similar sort of passage from M is for Malice. This time Millhone is just walking:

I walked home along Cabana Boulevard. The skies had cleared and the air temperature hovered in the mid-fifties. This was technically the dead of winter and the brazen California sunshine was not as warm as it seemed. Sunbathers littered the sand like flotsam left behind by the high tide. Their striped umbrellas spoke of summer, yet the new year was just a week old. The sun was brittle along the water's edge, fragmenting where the swells broke against the pilings under the wharf. The surf must have been dead cold, the salt water eye-stinging where children splashed through the waves and submerged themselves in the churning depths. I could hear their thin screams rising above the thunder of the surf, like thrill-seekers on a roller-coaster, plunging into icy terror. On the beach, a wet dog barked at them and shook the water from his coat. Even from a distance I could see where his rough hair had separated into layers. (!)
Subtle, the way that the narrator is able to see the children in the surf and make the imaginative leap into their physiological experience, their eyes stinging from the water, their minds on the edge of exhalation and terror. And then the bit about the patterning of the hair on the dog: unexpected. Surprising. Delightful.

Putting Millhone on the road in her VW gives Grafton another opportunity to paint word pictures. Here’s an example from N is for Noose, where she crafts makes an explicitly painterly description of lake country:

I reached Lake Nota… in slightly more than three hours. The town didn’t look like much, though the setting was spectacular. Mountains towered on three sides, snow still painting the peaks in thick white against a sky heaped with clouds. On the shady side of the road, I could see leftover patches of snow, ice boulders wedged up against the leafless trees. The air smelled of pine, with an underlying scent that was faintly sweet. The chill vapor I breathed was like sticking my face down in a half-empty gallon of vanilla ice cream, drinking in the sugary perfume. The lake itself was no more than two miles long and a mile across. The surface was glassy, reflecting granite spires and the smattering of white firs and incense cedars that grew on the slopes.
Or an even more detailed, extended description from B is for Burglar, displaying, among other things, Millhone’s (and Grafton’s) knowledge of local flora. And I like the way the description culminates in a generalizing remark that puts all of human life into the context of larger natural cycles:

The clouds hung above the mountains like puffs of white smoke left in the wake of a giant old-fashioned choochoo train. We took the old road up through the pass, my VW making high-pitched complaints until I shifted from third gear to second and finally into first. The road twisted up through sage and mountain lilac. As we approached, the dark green of the distant vegetation separated into discreet shrubs clinging obstinately to the slopes. There were very few trees. Steep expanses of California buckwheat were visible on the right, interspersed with the bright little orange faces of monkey flower and the hot pink of prickly phlox. The poison oak was thriving, its lush growth almost overwhelming the silvery leaves of the mugwort which grew alongside it and is its antidote.
            As we reach the summit, I glanced to my left. The elevation here was about twenty-five hundred feet and the ocean seemed to hover in the distance like a gray haze blending into the gray of the sky. The coastline stretched as far as the eye could see and the town of Santa Teresa looked at insubstantial as an aerial photo. From this perspective, the mountain ridge seemed to plunge into the Pacific, appearing again in four rugged peaks that formed the offshore islands. The sun up here was hot and the volatile oils, exuded by the underbrush, scented the still air with camphor. There were occasional manzanita trees along the slope, still stripped down to spare, misshapen black forms by the fire that had swept through two years back. Everything that grows up here longs to burn; seed coats broken only by intense heat, germinating then when the rains come again. It's not a cycle that concedes much to human intervention.
Grafton is also excellent at describing the human habitations that Millhone finds herself in as she pursues her investigations. In this passage, also from B is for Burglar, Millhone goes to the Tip Top Cab company in hopes of getting a look at whatever records they might of a cab taken by one of the people she is investigating:
Tip Top was jammed between a Humane Society Thrift Shop and a Big 'n Tall Men's Shop with a suit in the window designed for the steroid enthusiast. The office itself was long and narrow, partitioned across the middle with a plywood wall with a door cut into it. The place was furnished like some kid's hideout, complete with two broken-down couches and a table with one short leg. There were drawings and hand-lettered signs Scotch-taped to the walls, trash piled up in one corner, dog-eared copies of Road and Track magazine in an irregular tier by the front door. The bucket seat from a car was propped against the far wall, tan upholstery slashed in one spot and mended with Band-Aids covered with stars. The dispatcher was perched on a stool, leaning one elbow on a counter as littered as a workbench. He was probably twenty-five with curly black hair and a small dark mustache. He wore chinos, a pale blue T-shirt with a faded decal of the Grateful Dead, and a visor that made his hair stick up on the sides. The shortwave radio squawked incomprehensibly and he took up the mike.
            "Seven-oh," he said, his eyes immediately focusing on a map of the city affixed to the wall above the counter. I saw a butt-filled ashtray, an aspirin bottle, a cardboard calendar from Our Lady of Sorrows Church, a fan belt, plastic packets of ketchup, and a big stenciled note that read "Has Anybody Seen My Red Flash Lite?" Tacked to the wall was a list of addresses for customers who'd passed bad checks and those in the habit of calling more than one cab to see who could get there first.
The thing that strikes me about this passage is how funny it is. I have of course never been in this particular office, but I’ve sure been in ones that were like it. The description is laden with all kinds of telling details: the table with one short leg, the bucket seat mended with Band-Aids covered with stars, the cardboard calendar from Our Lady of Sorrows Church, the note asking about the “Red Flash Lite.” The old saying goes, you couldn’t make this stuff up. But that is exactly what Grafton is doing, making it up, and clearly having a blast doing so.

In another passage, this time from N is for Noose, Grafton describes with great precision and wry humor Millhone’s first impressions of a hotel she has to visit:

The hotel must have been considered elegant once upon a time. The floor was green marble with a crooked path of newspapers laid end to end to soak up all the rainy footsteps that criss-crossed the lobby. In places, where the soggy papers had been picked up, I could see that the newspapers had left reverse images of the headlines and text. Six ornate pilasters divided the gloomy space into sections, each of which sported a blocky green plastic couch.  To all appearances, the clientele was discouraged from spending time lounging about on the furniture as a hand-printed sign offered the following admonishments:
Which just about summed up my personal code.
I’ve read most of her novels now. And if you were to ask me to recount from memory the plot of any one of them, I would have a hard time doing so. What does stick in my mind, however, is the feeling of being in the mind of Kinsey Millhone, and sense of the way she inhabits and observes and celebrates the world. It’s unfortunate that Grafton never got to finish Z is for Zero, which was to have been the final installment of the cycle of 26 novels. But there’s also something deeply resonant about that. She lived her life, she set herself an ambitious goal, and she pursued it for as long as she could and wrote it as well as she could. Her life’s work brought a great deal of pleasure to me and to countless other readers. I’m grateful to her for that.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Reservoir 13

One of the enigmas of human life is that as humans what we know for certain about the nature of our lives is most often inconsistent with our lives as we actually lead them. We know, for example, that the universe is unimaginably large and has been in existence for an unimaginably long time. In his book the Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan included a graphic called the Cosmic Calendar, in which he laid out a timeline as if the history of the universe were overlaid on a calendar of a single year. In these terms, the origin of the Milky Way comes around May 1, the formation of Earth on September 14. Life on Earth begins on September 25. The first humans arrive at 10:30 p.m. on December 31. All of recorded human history occurs in the last half second of the year. The birth of Christ? 11:59:56.

Here’s the poet Rosser Reeves, coming at the same concept from a different direction:


Someday, perhaps, some alien eye or eyes,
Blood red in cold and polished horny lids,
Set in a chitinous face,
Will sweep the arch of some dark, distant sky
And see a nova flare,
A flick of light, no more,
A pin-point on a photographic plate,
A footnote in an alien chart of stars,
Forgotten soon on miles of dusty shelves
Where alien beetles feed.
A meal for worms,
Sole epitaph,
To mark the curious end of restless man,
Who for a second of galactic time
Floated upon a speck of cosmic dust
Around a minor sun.

An individual human life, seen in this context, is a very small thing indeed. And yet that is not the way that we as individuals experience our lives. For us, “a lifetime” is a synonym for “forever.” Our consciousness is housed in blood and bone, and as individuals we are the center of our own worlds, regardless of whatever scientific evidence might offer by way of contradiction. We are, in this sense, always deluded. Our subjectivity skews our vision of the world and overemphasizes the importance of our place it. We live within a network of what we take to be certainties, but are surrounded by much greater and numerous uncertainties.  What we don’t know is always by many orders of magnitude greater than what we do know. But we do not, we cannot, live that way. It’s a dilemma that raises existential questions.

This past Sunday, Maria Popova, in her blog Brain Pickings, cited Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue talking about how we might respond to this dilemma:

Every human person is inevitably involved with two worlds: the world they carry within them and the world that is out there. All thinking, all writing, all action, all creation and all destruction is about that bridge between the two worlds. All thought is about putting a face on experience… One of the most exciting and energetic forms of thought is the question. I always think that the question is like a lantern. It illuminates new landscapes and new areas as it moves. Therefore, the question always assumes that there are many different dimensions to a thought that you are either blind to or that are not available to you. So a question is really one of the forms in which wonder expresses itself. One of the reasons that we wonder is because we are limited, and that limitation is one of the great gateways to wonder.

O’Donohue suggests, and I certainly agree, that the proper response to our inevitable ignorance is to ask questions that are rooted in wonder, which is to say, appreciation. The other, and unfortunately more common response, particularly in our present political climate, is to simply double down on your certainties, whether or not you have any evidence that they are in fact reasonable. The problem with that, as O’Donohue points out, is that “thought, if it’s not open to wonder, can be limiting, destructive and very, very dangerous.”

One of the most powerful and value-creating functions of literature is to liberate us from our certainties, free us from the constraints of our inherited perspectives, and allow us to see our lives as individuals, however briefly and ephemerally, from a broader perspective.

Which brings me to the best novel that I read during 2017, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. It tells the story of an English village in thirteen chapters, one chapter for each year. McGregor eschews most of the familiar novelistic conventions. There are characters in the novel, more than 40 of them, actually, but the narrative does not focus on them one at a time, nor does it include what we would normally think of as scenes with dialogue. (The closest thing to a plot device is the disappearance of a teenage girl in the first chapter, which is revisited in each following chapter.) Rather, the story is told from a strategically distanced third-person perspective, written in simple declarative sentences, focused as often on animal life or landscape or weather as it is on human characters. It reads like a prose poem of sorts, an inventory of absences and presences. As you read, you get to know each of the characters in small doses over an extended period of time. You get a sense of the larger rhythms and patterns of their lives circling back on one another, moving forward in time even as they stay in one place.

An example, taken more or less at random, but indicative of the narrative style and tone throughout:

At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but they were too far off in the distance for the sound to carry and no one came out to watch. The dance at the village hall was canceled, and although the Gladstone [the local bar] was full there was no mood for celebration. Tony closed the bar at half past the hour and everyone made their way home. Only the police stayed out in the streets, gathered around their vans or heading back into the hills. In the morning the rain started up again. Water coursed from the swollen peat beds quickly through the cloughs and down the stepped paths that fell from the edge of the moor. The river thickened with silt from the hills and plumed across the weirs. (5)

Or, later:

The winds changed and came from the north, pulling a bog-sweet smell of damp down from the hills. After dark two of the badgers snuck out of the sett at the top end of the beech wood, sniffing at the air before foraging across the wet soil around the edge of the abandoned lead pits, looking for the earthworms that had always been there. Will and Claire came back from the hospital with a baby daughter, and went straight to the Jackson house to introduce her to Tom. They were calling her Molly, and when they laid her on Tom’s lap he looked terrified… On the television there were pictures of an earthquake’s aftermath; people walking down a road covered in dust, collapsed bridges, rescuers kneeling in the rubble to reach down into dark spaces… (123)

Reading Reservoir 13, one is put on constant alert to the larger patterns that underlie the lives of the individual people in the village, of which the villagers themselves are often only tangentially aware. The book is a reminder, to borrow O’Donohue’s words, of the many different dimensions of life that we are either blind to or that are not available to us, unless they are called to our attention, as they are in this case by an extremely confident and gifted writer.

This is the first book I’ve read in a long time that, having finished it, I was moved to go back and start again from the beginning. Reading it is an experience of the pleasures and rewards of the simple act of paying attention.

End note: If you’d like to get a fuller sense of what I’m talking about here before deciding whether to read the book, I suggest you take a look at James Wood’s characteristically brilliant review of it in the New Yorker. That’s how I found out about it.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A New Year

So 2017 has come and gone. Not my favorite year, by any standard. But the New Year has arrived and with it the opportunity to re-establish at least some of the productivity routines that were disrupted last year when I had to undergo two hip replacements (the first one failed) and an extended course of antibiotic infusions. One of my tentative goals for the New Year, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, is to try to breathe some life back into Throughlines.

I began this blog eleven years ago, when I was still teaching full time. It was at the start primarily a venue for me to reflect on my teaching practice and think my way through various ideas that presented themselves during the course of my professional practice. I have long held as an article of faith that writing is a very powerful tool for the generation and elaboration and refinement of thoughts which would otherwise remain either unarticulated or inarticulate.

If your goal is to be a thoughtful person—and I can’t think of any reason why it shouldn’t be, can you?—then an obvious question is “How can I encourage myself and support myself in my attempts to be thoughtful?” And my answer to that questions would be, “Well, you could try writing about what you are thinking.” Because, as I often told my students over the course of 45 years in the classroom, writing makes thinking hold still long enough for you to have second thoughts, not to mention third or fourth thoughts. If there is something you take seriously, or something that you have ideas about that you want to be taken seriously, what better way to make that happen than to write about it?

I also felt at that time that as a teacher of English (and therefore of reading and writing) I had a personal and professional responsibility to my students to model for them what I was asking them to do. I am all too familiar with teachers who are very comfortable giving students directions—and often very counterintuitive and counterproductive directions—about how to write, but who never write anything themselves more ambitious than the occasional email or text message.

I’ve been retired for four years now. I still return to my old school to teach a high school English course during the summer session, but during the rest of the year I am most often alone with my thoughts. The continual overflow of ideas from issues raised in class discussion is no longer provoking me to speak, or to write. Most days the only person I speak with at any length is my wife, and there’s a limit to what I can reasonably expect her to put up with in terms of incoming verbal stimuli. As an outlet (and an act of discipline) I do keep a journal on my computer, and my default goal is to write 500 words a day. On the days when I do write, it’s easy enough to come up with the words. But to be honest in the last year or so there have generally been more days when I never got around to writing than days where I did. Part of that is inertia. And I suppose, part of that was the default gestalt of 2017, existential despair. It’s hard to rouse yourself for a principled defense of thoughtfulness in a world in which there is so often so little on display. 

But I’ve dug through my drawers and dusted off my rose-colored glasses. I’m suiting up. I’m working out. I’m making a public commitment to my legions of devoted followers, that I’m going to post something here at least once a week, for as long as I can do it. Not so much on your behalf, but on my own. 2018 is going to be the new 2006. Buckle up.

Friday, May 12, 2017


In the same way that artists and writers are often pleasurably surprised by the way their work is enriched when it doesn't evolve according to plan, I am often delighted, when looking for one thing, to find another. This is one argument for browsing as an act of value creation.

The other day I went to the local library to pick up a book I had reserved. While I was there I went over to the new book section, as I most often do, just to see what might be of interest on the shelves. There was nothing in the fiction section that caught my eye, but over further I noticed that there were several new books of poetry: Whereas by Stephen Dunn, who I have admired for a long time, and The Last Shift by Philip Levine, a posthumous collection by another writer I have read with appreciation for many years. I snapped both of them up, and then noticed one more book by a writer I had never heard of: Self Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, by Dean Rader. I liked the line drawings on the cover, and as I flipped through it it looked as if it might be interesting, especially since a number of the poems seemed to reference Paul Klee, whose approach to and thinking about art has been a big influence on my own work, so I took that one as well.

When I got home, I sat down and read through the Dunn and Levine books first, and found in each a couple of poems I wanted to include in my archives. (I began collecting poems in the mid-1970's, when I was teaching middle school English and was trying to find poems that might serve in the classroom to introduce students to the way poems work. I started with a single folder with four or five poems in it; eventually I had a folder for every letter of the alphabet with multiple poems by dozens of authors represented in each folder.) Back in the day, I used to just photocopy poems that I liked. Over the last ten years or so I have taken to typing them out, primarily because I find that doing so gives me to the opportunity to attend to the way the poem unfolds, one word, one line at a time. In so doing I often notice things about the way the poem is put together—the way the lines break, repeated words, patterns of sound, etc.—that I don't necessarily pick up by just by moving my eyes across the little black marks on the page and then heading for the photocopier.

The big surprise came when I started reading the poems by Dean Rader. He's a thoughtful, witty, offbeat writer whose poetry exemplifies the spirit of writing that I have throughout my career tried to encourage in my students. His poems are excursions, explorations, investigations. They are surprising both in conception and in execution. Many of them are linked explicitly or implicitly to visual art. Of the fifty-one poems in the volume, 24 include the words "Self-Portrait" in the title, and each of those poems is indeed a kind of self-portrait of the writer at a particular moment in time, or in the case of the poem I'm about to quote—typical of Rader's atypicality—at a particular moment outside of time. Here are the first few lines of "Self-Portrait: Postmortem":

Imagine a poem that begins at the end, in that big boat beyond the end,
where things are both timeless and no longer part of time or even part of things,

which is a little bit like picturing water without waves or light without the stars
but not at all like a sky made entirely of stars or the stars composed

of our thoughts about them, more like the body's bones minus their crushed music
of music free of meaning and misapprehension, but most of all like a seas

in which there is neither up nor down, forward or backward, depth or distance,
only the motion of stasis, the weight of weightlessness.

I love the way this poem unspools itself, starting with the simple injunction to imagine a certain kind of poem, and then following the emerging line of thought to its logical conclusion. (Although the logic, in this case, is being stretched and extended in ways that may seem il-logical but are appropriate to the investigation.) And the "conclusion" of the poem, some twenty lines later, actually brings us back to where we began, with the word "imagine":

You sit beside me in the dark ride as the organ plays and our boat lifts and drops over
the edge. We are so close, it is as if we have traveled the many distances solely for this.

You ask if I hear the violin, and I ask if you fear what awaits you. But you
remind me that we are not afraid of what we cannot see, only of what we can imagine.

There are many other odd resonances for me in this collection. When my children were young my wife and I used to love reading Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books to them. Rader, who is often allusive (his poems reference Rilke, Frost, Basho, Neruda, Dickinson, Shakespeare, Twain, Ginsburg, and Wallace Stevens, among many others), includes in each of the five sections of the book a poem referencing my old friends Frog and Toad. There is, for example, a very playful poem entitled "Frog and Toad Confront Basho beneath the Wreckage of the Moon," which is a sequence of 14 haiku. A couple of examples:

Toad leaps from the stone
into the river's black heart.
Frog pictures the stone.


Snow on the mountain,
water in the pond, Toad
and Frog leap in the moon.

*  (with a nod to Stevens)

The river is move-
ing The blackbird must be fly-
ing. The toad? Eat-ing

There are other poems in this collection that seem to me to ready-mades for teachers in pretty much any classroom from elementary school to college. There's a poem entitled "Democracy; or Poem in Which Readers Select Their Favorite Last Line." It consists of the same six-line poem presented five times, each with a different last line each time. Read. Reflect. Discuss. Which last line works for you? Why? How does this last line change the way you think about the rest of the poem? Find another poem that you think could be improved by the substitution of a different line. Write a poem of your own and consider multiple possible last (first, middle) lines. Etc, etc, etc.

In a similarly useful vein, should you happen to be a teacher looking to jumpstart a discussion of the work that titles can do when writing poetry, (or simply a reader interested in the physiology of poetics) is the "Poem in Which Readers Select Their Favorite Title." The five possible titles are listed, multiple-choice style (A-E) at the top of the page. My experience has taught me that most students view poems—and most other pieces of published writing—as the end-product of a very matter-of-fact process that begins with having something to say ends with the completion of the necessary but unenviable task of saying it. Rader's work offers clear illustrations of the dimensions of writing that students tend to underestimate, if not miss entirely: its playfulness, its mystery, the explorational quality that Picasso talks about with regard to his artwork:

"Ideas are simply starting points. I can rarely set them down as they come to my mind. As soon as I start to work, others well up in my pen. To know what you're going to draw, you have to begin drawing… What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas…"

It may seem from my too-brief summary that Rader is merely playful, but that is not the case. Yes, at times he's goofing around. But he's also extraordinarily attentive to the way words work together, well-grounded as a thinker, and disciplined about the architectural qualities of his sentences and stanzas. Here are the last few lines of his poem "Self-Portrait with Contemplation":

It is evening. I think of Rilke and the
longing for infinity and absence

rung into the deep silence of the self.
If silence is bitter, change yourself to song.

O listener, I think of you alone there
on the cliff's edge of your daily duties,

waiting, the way saints wait, for the
falling to cease and the fire to rise,

when the tiniest note, the loveliest letter
from this world finally arrives.

Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry is Rader's letter to the world. Check it out.

 (Here are links to two samples… the title poem (Self Portrait as Wikipedia Entry,) and a .pdf of the poem Paul Klee's Winter Journey at the End of Summer.)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What Can People Do to Get Better at Learning?

A short video on learning from the current Atlantic, with Jo Boaler, Amanda Ripley, Tim Brown, and others making good sense:

Monday, December 7, 2015


RBS: Homeland

November came in like a sauna and went out like a cold shower. We had a sustained period of hot, sunny afternoons, and then the last two weeks have been more typically autumnal. My art practice during November turned out to be mostly collage. Strathmore makes a very sturdy textured paper out of bamboo. As far as I can figure out it only comes in two sizes, trading card (2.5" x 3.5") and greeting card (5"x 7," folded, with envelopes.) The card stock stands up well to the acrylic medium that I use as glue and glaze for my collages. It was pleasant, after having spent most of October working with only black and white, to play with color again. I wound up doing about 35 collages in this series, and within that set of 35 several smaller sequences. Typically I'll choose a set of papers and then wind up doing two or three or four different collages using the same basic set materials, and then pull out a different set of papers and do the same thing with them. One thing I noticed about what I have been doing is that my tendency is to build a collage additively, using only one piece of each kind of paper in any given collage, as in these examples.

Colors or shapes can and do echo one another, but I do not normally include or layer multiple pieces of the same paper. But I do see other collage artists doing that to good advantage. Here, for example, is a masterful instance by Robert Motherwell entitled Australia II, where he has an interesting mix of repeated and cognate elements on the one hand and unique elements on the other:

Motherwell: Australia II

So I'm thinking that's something I want to start playing with in my next sequence. But so far in December I've been playing possum. I've been doing a lot of reading and a fair amount of writing, but no art yet, and I've been turning over in my mind what I would like to do next, and when, and why.

Sunday, November 1, 2015


Last day of October. The late afternoon sun is streaming in my window as I write and it feels less like Hallowe'en than an early summer evening. It's our second autumn in Northern California and I'm still getting used to the early morning chill, the pleasant warmth of midmorning, and the baking afternoon heat. For some reason, the afternoon sun feels even hotter in California than in Hawaii. And for most of September and October the California afternoons have put me in mind of the summer afternoons of my youth in New York State. There is talk of El Nino bringing much-needed rain during the winter months,  but we have not had more than a few drops here and there since spring.

I generally try to have one form of practice—writing, drawing, collage, woodwork, walking, something—going on, and this month it's been drawing. I started out on a series of 4" x 4" pen-and-ink abstracts during the first week of October, and have done one or two pretty much every day this month. They are, like much of my work in previous years, explorations of what can be done in a small space with just black against white. They are not intended to be representational, although sometimes when they are done they seem to be want to be read that way. Most of them begin as movements of the pen and hand in defining small black spaces, but the creation of those spaces creates negative shapes in white, which by the time the drawing is done are what command the eye. One of the things about this way of working is that I can only begin to sense what the drawing is actually going to look like when I am more than halfway through. Once in a while I'll start with an overall idea in mind, block out the areas in advance, and work from the outside in, but must often I just start with one small shape in some random place on the paper, then add another, and another. I know at some point for sake of variety and visual interest I'm going to have to segue into some other set of contrasting shapes, but I do that more or less by feel, when the time is right.

Then there's the question of when the drawing is done. Sometimes I will choose to leave a large area of white unadorned to set off the areas that have been heavily worked. This often has the effect of turning the abstract image into a landscape of sorts, with the white areas reading as sky:

Each of these small studies takes two to four hours to complete. Every once in a while I'll go for a larger format which gives me the chance to set up individual zones that play off one another, as in this 7"x9" piece which was recently accepted for the annual member show at the Marin Society of Artists:


A piece like this can take anywhere from five to ten hours to complete. In this particular case, I decided to include a more or less literal nightscape: mountain and moon and stars, as the last element in the sequence, both for visual balance and because, as often happens, a theme ("Equinox") had occurred to me and I wanted something to reinforce that.

A similar thing happened when I was working on this last 4x4 study. Earlier in the day I had had a conversation with my granddaughter about ladybugs and for some reason the very odd nursery rhyme ("Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home; your house is on fire, your children will burn.") was running through my head as I was drawing, and that theme made its way into the drawing as I moved from my beginning in the top left down to completion in the bottom right.

Fly Away Home

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Wooden Heart

This is a video I ran across a while back by vocalist Dan Smith of Listener. When I first saw it I was like "What?!" There's a guy walking along dragging household electronics through a field with a rope. He's pulling a tv and crutches and a vacuum cleaner out of a lake. He makes a pile and takes a sledgehammer and starts smashing it all up. Then it's dark and he's holding flares. Then he walks into the water until it's over his head and he disappears. I don't know how you arrive at that video to go with this song, but weirdly enough the video and the song both seem to make each other stronger. What comes across to me after repeated listenings/viewings/readings is that despite its manic intensity and apocalyptic imagery it's essentially a love song, or at least a plea for love and mutual understanding. I think it's kind of great.

We're all born to broken people on their most honest day of livin'
Since that first breath we'll need grace that we're never given
Well I've been haunted by standard red devils and white ghosts
It's not only when these eyes are closed
These lies are ropes and I tied them to my stomach
But they hold this ship together tossed like leaves in this weather
My dreams are sails that I point towards my true north
Stretched thin over my rib bones and pray that it gets better
But it won't, at least I don't believe it will
So I've built a wooden heart inside this iron ship
To sail these blood red seas and find your coast
Don't let these waves wash away your hopes
This war ship is sinking and I still believe in anchors
Pulling fistfuls of rotten wood from my heart, oh I still believe in saviours
'Cause we are all made out of shipwrecks, every single board
Washed and bound like crooked teeth on these rocky shores
So come on and let's wash each other with tears of joy and tears of grief
And fold our lives like crashing waves and run upon this beach
Come on and sew us together, just some tattered rags stained forever
We only have what we remember

Well I'm the barely living son of a woman and a man who barely made it
But we're makin' it, taped together on borrowed crutches and new starts
We all have the same holes in our hearts
Everything falls apart at the exact same time it all comes together perfectly for the next step
But my fear is this prison that I keep locked below the main deck
I keep a key under my pillow and it's quiet and it's hidden
And my hopes are weapons that I'm still learnin' how to use right
But they're heavy and I'm awkward and I'm always runnin' out of fight
So I've carved a wooden heart
Put it in this sinking ship hopin' it'd help me float for just a few more weeks
But I am all made out of shipwrecks, every twisted beam
Lost and found like you and me all scattered out on the seas
So come on let's wash each other with tears of joy and tears of grief
And fold our lives like crashing waves and run upon this beach
Come on and sew us together, we're just some tattered rags stained forever
We only have what we remember

My throat it still tastes like house fire and salt water
I wear this tide like loose skin, come on and rock me to sea
If we hold on tight we'll hold each other together
And not just be some fools rushin' to die in our sleep
While these machines will rust, I promise, but we'll still be electric
Shockin' each other back to life
Your hand in mine
My fingers and your veins connected
Our bones grown together in time
Our hands entwine and my fingers and your veins connect
And our spines grown stronger inside
'Cause I know that our church is all made out of shipwrecks
From every hull these rocks have claimed
But we pick ourselves up, try and grow better with this change
So come on and let's wash each other with tears of joy and tears of grief
And fold our lives like crashing waves and run upon this beach
Come on and sew us together, we're just some tattered rags stained forever
We only have what we remember

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

From the Archives: Reading and Writing

I spent several hours today working through folders on external hard drive where I keep backups of pretty much everything, insurance against the day when my now-four-year-old laptop gives up the ghost. I was looking for several particular files I think I might like to use next week when I head back into the classroom, but I also ran across a lot of other files I had more or less forgotten about. One in particular caught my eye, a dialogue or self-interview I had put together maybe ten or twelve years ago which speaks to some of the goals and aspirations of the course I am going to be teaching. So this evening's exercise has been to read and revise that dialogue:

Why do you ask your students to read?

Well, first of all, I’m teaching an English course, and the traditional mission of English programs is to help students learn to improve their reading, writing, and speaking abilities. But beyond that, I’m convinced that reading is fundamental to whatever it is that the students will wind up doing in high school, college, and beyond. In almost any academic discipline, the way you learn is by reading. Whether you’re on your way to becoming a banker, a lawyer, a scientist, a doctor, an architect, a policeman, or a historian, there is a body of work in your discipline which you are going to need to be able to read and to master in order to be effective in your line of work.

But what’s the connection between the reading students do in sophomore English and the reading they may have to do later on?

Well, we could use an analogy. It’s like playing a guitar. You don’t just pick up a guitar and start to play. You teach yourself, through attention and careful practice, what you need in order to be able to improve. If you stop practicing, your skills deteriorate. When you pick up the instrument again, it takes a while to get your mind and your fingers up to speed. There is also no “end” to the process. You don’t simply arrive at a point where you are now an officially certified guitar player with nothing else to learn. There are always new challenges, new levels of craft. What you learn this week is what makes it possible for you to learn even more challenging stuff next week. It’s always possible to get better.

Like playing a guitar, reading is an acquired skill. Students already know how to read, but they bring to their reading a wide range of skills and abilities. They are all capable of learning to read with greater sophistication. Some students are good at one aspect of reading - getting the main idea, for example - and not so good at others. Some students can read one kind of text well—say, a particular kind of  short story— but find poetry (or analytical essays, or postmodern novels) baffling and frustrating to read. I tell my students that one of the goals of the course is to prepare them to be able to read anything they might encounter capably and with some degree of pleasure.

What about students who don’t like to read?

The question seems to imply that liking to read or not liking to read is an inherent and unchangeable trait. I don’t see it that way. I see it as a matter of choice. I frequently ask students to rate what we are reading on a scale of 1 to 7, with one being utter disdain and 7 being enthusiastic acceptance. Typically, in a room of 20 students there will be at least one student at each of the seven stations, and a cluster of students between 3 and 5. The point which I make with the students is that the range of responses—and there is always a range of responses—highlights the fact that there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the texts we read. (In fact, pretty much any text a student is likely to read in class has already been screened multiple times before it even hits the students’ desk: it was selected by the author from among all the things s/he might have written to be published in the first place, it was later selected by the editors of whatever text they are reading, and it has been chosen by the teacher for their consideration.) A good reader, should be able to read such a text, get something out of it, and, ideally, derive at least some enjoyment out of the process of doing so. In my experience, many students do. And the fact is that all the way through high school and college students are going to have to read texts which are challenging and which may not at first glance be the kind of thing they would have chosen to read— if in fact they chose to read at all. I ask my students, “Given a choice, would you rather be the kind of student who can read works like this with appreciation and enjoyment, or would you rather be the kind of student who has to struggle through this, and who will hate every minute of it.” Because—and this is the key point—you do have that choice. Whether or not you enjoy what you are reading has a great deal to do with how you are reading it.

Students often find it easier to simply blame the text. They say things like “This book is boring,” or “This author can’t write.” But as I've already pointed out, there are of course other readers, including other student readers, who find value and enjoyment in the process of reading the very same book. So a student who wanted to learn how to read better might be well advised to ask, “What are those readers doing that I’m not doing?” Or, to pose the question another way, “How might I change the way I am reading this text that would allow me to derive more value and enjoyment from the process of reading it?”

We are none of us doomed to remain the kind of readers we already are. We can change, we can learn, we can get better. The bonus benefit is that there is a satisfaction that can be taken in that as well. The apprentice guitar player who finally masters his instrument has something he can DO that gives him pleasure. The same might be said of the apprentice reader.

Can you give an example of a change in the reading process that might result in a more pleasurable reading experience?

Sure. A couple of years ago we had a book-in-common reading program at my school. Everyone on campus— students, staff, admin, and teachers— had agreed (in theory) to read the same book over the summer. For many years previously the books were chosen had been mostly novels or other English-teacherly kinds of books. Someone made the suggestion that the books in common should rotate among departments, and the first department that was chosen was the science department, which selected Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif. The book was met with almost universal disdain by the students. The reaction was universal and antagonistic: the kids hated the book. Most of them read a few pages and simply gave up.

I remembered Microbe Hunters as a book I had read and enjoyed when I was in junior high school. But when I picked it up during the summer I read a couple of pages and said to myself “Uh, oh.” I felt two things right away: 1) that the kids were going to have trouble reading this book, and 2) that I myself was going to have trouble reading this book. There was something about the book that was deeply troubling to me. At this point, I had a couple of choices. One would have been to toss the book aside, as in fact most of the students did. The other option, the one we’re discussing, was to change my approach to the reading process. What I decided, very self-consciously, was to go back to the text and try to figure out exactly what it was about the writing that was getting under my skin and making it hard for me to read this text with enjoyment. I was looking to identify specific passages that bothered me: “See, here it is, right here! This what I object to.” Once I started reading this way, several things began to happen. First of all, the reading went more smoothly. I now had a different purpose for reading, and it became a sort of detective hunt, looking for clues, and that had a kind of inherent interest, and a satisfaction that arose as I was able to figure out exactly what stylistic features were presenting themselves. Secondly, because I now had a purpose for reading that was pulling me forward, other features of the text that I had previously not noticed began to come to my attention. I began to see that in addition to the (relatively few) things that were bothering me, there were a lot of other qualities which were worthwhile and admirable, not the least of which was that I was (re)learning a lot about science and history. Dr Kruif’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject and his admiration for the scientists he was writing about began to draw me in more. In the end, I was glad I had read the book, and looking back on it I can say that although I did not enjoy it when I started, I was able to change my reading process in such a way as to result in a more pleasurable reading experience.

But you’re an adult, and a skilled reader. Do you really think teenagers would have the patience and self-discipline?

It comes back to choices. I don’t think age matters. We all have choices. If there is work to be done (and there is always work to be done) wouldn’t it be better to figure out a way to enjoy doing it? I can’t imagine anyone saying, “No, I’d rather be miserable. I’d rather fail. I’d rather quit.” My working hypothesis is that it is always possible to change. The question is whether we are willing to try. Perhaps some teenagers do lack patience and self-discipline, but I would certainly hope that as teachers we would be in the business of trying to help them develop those qualities.

How do you do that?

First of all, by modeling them. To cite Gandhi's famous dictum: “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” I think it’s important for kids to see us working though problems: reading problems, writing problems, problems of articulation or of execution. It’s not easy to read well, write well, think well. It requires time; it requires patience and flexibility and sustained attention. And I’ve become more and more convinced, both in my own life and in the classroom, that in the key to developing those habits of mind is writing. Writing is perhaps the most powerful instrument for self-teaching that we possess.

What is so important about writing?

Most of the time our thoughts at any given moment are in a greater or lesser degree of disarray: a complex jumble of ideas, feelings, beliefs, intuitions, hunches, desires, and moods. Writing is a kind of funnel, it channels thought, develops a line of thought, and allows the thinking to hold still long enough to be reconsidered. The act of writing forces you to stop and find words for what you actually do think. The process of articulating thoughts is clarifying. I often find that once I have written something I begin then to see it differently. In other words, the process of articulating your first thoughts makes it possible to begin having second thoughts. Writing about something you know allows you to consolidate and verify your knowledge. Writing about something you don’t know allows you to figure out what your questions are, what you have to find out. In either case, the process of writing produces thinking which is more structured, more disciplined, and more easily evaluated than thinking which “just happens” in the brain.

Writing, like reading, is a craft, a set of skills. Like most crafts, it can be done well or poorly, with a greater or lesser degree of artistry and sophistication. And the essential element in gaining mastery of the craft is regular practice. I ask my students to write so that they will learn to think better, and read better—and write better.

Are you assuming that writing is self-correcting? That all students have to do is write and they will automatically get better at writing?

No, not really. Although I would argue that such a thing might be possible. A kid who spends hours and hours on a basketball court may not become a good player unless he has mentors or models or coaches who help him learn the dynamics of the game. But in all likelihood, even without the feedback he’s going to wind up being a better player than the kid who only plays once in a while. Yes, it’s important for students to write often if they want to grow as writers and thinkers. But it’s also important that they get feedback and guidance from other readers: peers, teachers, significant others.

There’s another factor that has to be considered as well. “Careaboutability” is a term coined by one of my colleagues that gestures at the issue of significance. It has been my experience throughout my career that students tend to write much better when they are writing about something that is of central importance in their lives. To paraphrase Robert Frost, “No significance for the writer; no significance for the reader.” How well we write, and how carefully we think, has a lot to do with how much is at stake. The single most important element in thoughtfulness is quality of attention that we pay to what we are doing. Many students write as if they were on their way to doing something they consider more important. Which is in fact probably the case. We need to find ways to create with students the opportunity to think about and articulate things that are essential to them, that make a real difference, that are “careaboutable.”

How do you do that?

One way is by turning over the choice of form and topic to the students and allowing them to conduct their own explorations. I make a distinction in my classes between directed assignments and open-ended assignments. A directed assignment is one in which I tell the students what I would like them to do. For example, I might ask them to read a poem, frame a significant question about the poem, and then write two plausible answers to the question. That's a writing task of a fairly familiar sort that asks them to develop a line of thought about what they have been assigned to read. It's not unlike what students have been asked to do in English classes from time immemorial.

An open-ended assignment, on the other hand, is more like, "I'd like you to hand in a piece of writing on Friday. It can be in any form, on any subject you like. The only requirement is that you spend at least half an hour on it." That's an assignment that is in essence a gesture at a territory: "Go find a place to play. Come back when you're done and tell me how it went." I have been giving these kinds of open-ended assignments for 40 years and more, and I'm here to tell you that the writing that students do when you give them the chance to make their own choices is superior, by several orders of magnitude, to what they typically do in response to directed assignments. I'm not arguing for a steady diet of one or the other. But I do think students need both, and in most classrooms they get very little of the latter.

Finally, to return to the connection between reading and writing: my own personal experience has been that I understand and remember much more about what I have read when I make myself write about what I have been reading. Again, writing is a way of channeling a somewhat fuzzy conglomeration of impressions and hunches and perceptions and reactions to a text into something more structured and more deliberate. Writing about a text allows you to see very clearly what you do understand, what you don't understand, and what you have questions about. I find that students who have written about what they have read before they discuss the text in class get a lot further than students who come to class and "wing it" without having experienced the deliberate, thoughtful processing that writing provides us with the chance to do. Furthermore, writing about what you are reading while you are reading it allows you to go back to the text with a clearer purpose, a clearer sense of what you are trying to figure out as you read.