Thursday, March 29, 2012



Suppose what of red. Border integration, but not anxious. Cascade.
Sometimes empty. Arisen. Thought cloud. Perhaps a circle, perhaps
a vessel, a constellation. Interference. Inevitable irregularities, but
still. Text and just almost. I'm asking you. A pool. A spool. Sub-
version. Mapping the alternatives. Arrest. Not prime. Isle of Man.
Spice. If ever, water, trip, collide, focus. Distillation thereof.
However. Please. Beneath the threshold. Unless. Immediately.
Gradual realizations. Breath. Sure, there's noise, water. Replete
for single. Master. Integumentary. Among of green stiff old.
That too. What's possible. What's right. Spiral? Always okay.

Process Reflection:

The image is one of a series I was working on recently combining watercolor, ink, and collage. I usually work with those separately, but here I was playing with the combinations. As you might guess from looking at the text fragment, it's small, about 3.5" x 5.5". Just playing with juxtapositions, what I could do inside of a rectangle. Several kinds of balancing acts going on simultaneously: colors, forms, shapes, objects (of which there are five configured in a rough circle). Collage is about putting found objects, or created objects, or both together, in order to see what happens. Some kind of energy, some kind of coherence. I've become interested in how one goes about "reading" a collage or other type of abstract art, which turns out to involve a willingness to simply be present to the experience, to accept the suchness and thusness of what is without trying to impose a logic upon it. The work of art is a field of energies defining their own little universe. Spending some time in that world is a kind of tourism. What is this all about? How is this one different from the last one? The next one? The one you live in now? The one you construct in your dreams (or your dreams construct in you)?

The poem, if that's what you'd call it, is an attempt to replicate or re-enact the same process using words instead of objects. The words and phrases are in some (intentional) sense random, and in some (intuitive) sense connected both to each other and to the image they are intended to mirror. Because they are words, we want them to add up to something beyond what they are, words. As they do. As they must. But not in the way they ordinarily do. The ordinary rules aren't in play. So the experience of reading is bent or altered as well. Taken together, they add up to... something. It's recognizable as a poem. It even includes a quote from a (just slightly less oblique) poem (by William Carlos Williams). But it's not going to speak except in its own voice.

Writing this way is harder than it might at first appear. But like all purposeful play, it has its satisfactions.


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

PBN. Quest. Fog. Movie.

This morning I was in a meeting at my school attended by some representatives from Daylight Design who are working with us to employ design thinking concepts within the framework of the school's master planning process. I've attended a number of design thinking workshops and comfortable with the concepts and language and processes associated with design thinking. But today Sven, the team leader for the group working with us, sketched out a diagram on the white board that I had not seen before and found interesting. This afternoon I took out my notebook and transferred the diagram as he had drawn in onto a Keynote slide. (Thanks for the suggestion, Tedd.) I'm going to try to walk my way back through it and explain it, both to clarify it in my own mind and in order to share it here. (I've actually flipped the diagram Sven drew both vertically and horizontally because it felt more intuitive to me this way.) The diagram looks like this:

The vertical axis represents the degree of clarity you have in any particular situation about your goals, your objectives, what you hope to accomplish when you're done. At the bottom of the line you basically unclear about what you want to get done, what the output will be. At the top of the line you're quite certain about outcomes.

The horizontal access represents the how, the degree of clarity you have about the processes you are going to use to arrive at your goal. On the far left, there's a lack of clarity or certainty about methods, on the far right, you know exactly what you intend to do.

The two lines create four quadrants. The upper right quadrant represents the state of mind in which you know exactly what you want to get done and exactly how you intend to do it. If you know you need to order office supplies and you know where you're going to order them and there's a process in place to do that, it's a done deal. It's a cinch. It's what Sven labeled as PBN, or paint by the numbers. Not much ambiguity there.

The upper left quadrant represents the state of mind in which you know exactly what you want but have no idea how to get there. You're going to have to search for a way to find it or make it happen. It's a quest.

In the lower left quadrant you don't know where you want to accomplish and you don't know how you're going to even get started. This is the foggy zone. You feel a need, but you can't articulate it. This is the zone of greatest ambiguity, but it is also the zone of greatest fluidity. All your options are still open. It's a good place for generative thinking and brainstorming.

In the lower right quadrant, you know what your process is but you don't know yet what the outcome will be. It's more of an exploration, like making a movie. You have a cast of characters and an evolving narrative and you create the story as you go along.

The point of the diagram, as I understood it, is that it's helpful to be clear about where you are at the start of a process, so that you can make informed decisions about how to proceed and focus your energies on what is most likely to be helpful in moving you forward.

Having gone this far, I decided to google the quadrant terms and came across another diagram covering the same turf in a slightly different way:

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hunger Games

So last night we went to see The Hunger Games, which I thought met or exceeded all reasonable expectations. I thought it was well-structured, well-acted, and very true to the feel of the book. It was also consistently interesting to watch, even though I, and presumably most of the people in the theatre, knew basically how it was going to play out. There are several built-in challenges to making a book as stylized and hard-edged and violent as this one into a movie. You can the tone wrong, especially when you have a book that walks such a narrow line between realism and satire, and between sentimentality and brutality. You can, in cutting out as much of the action and the interior motivations of the characters as you need to pare a book down to a movie, disrupt the flow of the narrative or put too much emphasis on one thing at the expense of another. And then there's the daunting question of how to create scenes which are adequate to the violence of the book without alienating or grossing out the millions of twelve-to-fourteen year-olds who constitute the core target audience. Not to mention getting their parents up in arms (so to speak) or getting an R rating from the MPAA. The Hunger Games succeeds in handling all of these challenges effectively and with assurance.

If there was a weak character in the movie, it would be Elizabeth Banks in the role of Effie Trinket, who has little to do other than to mince about in outrageous costumes making inane remarks. But that's basically what Effie did in the book as well. Everyone else was solid. I've read criticism of Woody Harrelson's performance, but was surprised to find him totally believable as Haymitch. Stanley Tucci takes a very minor role in the book and takes over the screen every moment he's on it. Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss with a tightly controlled intensity that was pitch-perfect. It was one of the most satisfying movies I've seen in a very long time.

The one thing that bothered me after I had time to think about it a situation that occurs toward the end of the movie when two of the tributes who have been in the arena all the time, like Katniss, make reference to something which we as the audience know to have happened but which there is no plausible way they could have known about, unless they were watching the games on state TV instead of participating in them. But it's a logical flaw, and a minor one at that, and it does not to my mind reduce the dramatic effectiveness of the scene in question or the movie as a whole.

Then this morning I read David Denby's characteristically stodgy and humorless critique in the New Yorker in which, after bestowing such compliments as he could bring himself to make, he goes on an extended slash job in which he labels the movie "pretty much a disaster—disjointed, muffled, and even, at times, boring." He rips on the camerawork, waxes indignant about the incoherent action sequences, and complains that "the movie looks less like a fight to the death than like a scavenger hunt. Katniss is always finding something useful in a tree or lying on the ground." I wonder how many instances add up, in Denby's mind, to an "always." Denby ends his review with "The result is an evasive, baffling, unexciting production—anything but a classic."

I don't know what movie he was watching. Or why the New Yorker would choose the buttoned-up, pedantic Denby to review this particular movie, instead of co-reviewer Anthony Lane, who if he were of a mind to complain would at least do it with perceptiveness and humor.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


"A word is a way to speak about something that really, in truth, no word can touch."

- Lia Purpura

Maybe two months ago I was in Barnes and Noble looking for a particular book of essays which it turned out they did not have. But, as sometimes happens, right where the book I was looking for should have been, there was another book that looked like it might be interesting called Rough Likeness by Lia Purpura. I picked it off the shelf and started flipping through it, and was struck immediately by the freshness and freedom of the language and by the way her writing seemed to mirror the motion of her mind in thought. Too often essays, even (especially?) essays of the kind that appear in anthologies like Best American Essays, have a kind of earnestness about them that makes reading them feel like, well, eating your spinach because it's good for you. But these had a different feel to them. They looked like they might be fun to read. I tucked the book under my arm and made my way to the cash register. When I got home and started to read, all of my initial impressions were confirmed, and then some.

Purpura is an inventive, explorational writer. She is interested in the effects that can be created by the sequencing of words, and in the words themselves. Avoiding the formal, familiar, and therefore more predictable language of the academic essay, she writes in a way that seems to follow the immediate tendencies of her mind in action. She's a self-conscious writer in the best sense, in that she is fully aware even as she writes of the sometimes bewildering number of choices that are presented by each word she chooses. She's a writer of poetry as well, and the rhythms and sounds and imagery of poetry often characterize her prose. Her writing is carefully crafted, but comes across as natural, spontaneous speech. Here, for example, are the first few sentences of "The Lustres," the second essay in the book. (The title is from Emerson, who used the word to describe "the prickly bright sensations" which he said were one of his pleasures in reading.)

I am, I admit, daunted here. Set upon by impossibility, which is both my subject and predicament. My method, then will be the standard proceeding-in-the-face-of variety. I'll call some point beginning and begin. This state, right now, is coiled up like a fiddlehead fern, so bright-green, fresh, lemony, cochlear I cannot bring myself to pick/wash/steam it just yet. This moment, folded into itself, is resting so tenderly I find it hard to get going—in just the same way I cannot bring myself to make a fist with one hand while touching the yielding velvet of an earlobe with the other. Or to bite down hard on pearled barley on luminous beads of tapioca. (9)

The "moment" she is referring to is the moment of generation, the instant at which and in which the artist touches a brush to a blank canvas or the writer puts the first tentative words in the page. It's the moment of the first gesture, the first move, from which all othes must follow. She begins by considering how it feels to be beginning, and comes up a series of similes (the fern, the fist, the taste of tapioca) to convey the feeling of the moment. And it's characteristic of her that the last simile in the sequence comes in from what feels at first like deep left field. It surprises me. I'm sure it surprised her. It was not what she had in mind when she began, but in beginning, she found her way to it. Which is, of course, why we write. (Most students do not understand this, and are in fact convinced that the only reason to write is to prove to someone (usually a teacher) that you have something already in your head. I've made a career out of trying in my own limited way to get them to reconsider that core belief. But I've ranted about that before.)

Purpura is enamored of words, and supersensitive to their overtones and undertones, their denotations and connotations, the freight they carry with them. "Lustres" is in large part an essay written in appreciation of words, and there a number of specific words that in this essay ("Vienna, Japan. Sublime. Bower. Pigs.") she takes pains to unpack:

I learned the word bower for an intimacy I trace to a scene atop an enameled pillbox, given to me by Madame Lulu, visiting from South Africa. She ran an orphanage for Jewish refugees, and we knew the grown-up orphan who was my parents' friend, David. On the pillbox, in blue and white, a seated peasant girl and standing peasant boy inclined together in a tondo of love amid hills and a far-off, blurry castle. Their heads touched, their eyes met on the empty basket in her lap and the bouquet in his hand hung just a wisp, a breath of white away from it. Sometimes I'd take a break from the scene and flick the golden lisps of the clasps apart, open the box, and touch my tongue to the fine powder there left by Madame's pills—tiny saccharine tablets for her tea—then snap the box shut and ride the wisp all the way down to the girls lap, and fast up to the distant castle. (12)

In another essay, "Against Gunmetal," she ponders the use of that word as a familiar adjective for gray, as in "gunmetal sky." Her impulse is to reject it precisely because it is so familiar as to be shopworn:

I want such a sky to quiet me (not "strike me dumb"— that's a rod drawn up, enforcing awe, and one is "smote"). And I want, in that quiet, to search out my terms. And what I decide on, I want to be more than a firearm's alloy. Harder to come by. Chromatic. I want to turn to oyster and mouse, tidepool and tin, and then tank those and reconfigure if they grey they offer is not worthy, if associations gained are not surprising, of a distance previously unreachable, and intimately roomy. Freshening and new. (37)

Purpura is also a teacher (of college-level creative writing), and one passage in particular struck me as being particularly apt and true to my own experience of both writing and teaching:

Here, I walk into class thinking Really, I have nothing to say to these people, the proper study of writing is reading, is well-managed awe, desire to make a thing, stamina for finishing, adoration of language, and so on about reverie, solitude, etc. Here, sitting down I'm going over my secret: I don't want to be inspiring, I just want to write and they, too, should want that—let's all agree to go home and work hard. I walk in, I see people with books, stacks fo books I've asked them to read. Besides Woolf, there's James Agee (let's take that out class), who lived with the poorest of white sharecroppers of Alabama and whose force of nature, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, was published in 1941, as he might add, Year of Our Lord, to dignify the event. (Event: I choose my word carefully, friends, for as Agee writes, 'this is a book only by necessity…' let's turn to page xi…) Now I'm cooking. I, in my flight suit (black sweater and jeans) look into the faces of my cadets. Everyone's eager. We walk to the runway. We find the ignition. (81)

Saturday, March 24, 2012


Four quotes from reading I did today that might serve as footnotes to yesterday's post:

To be playful and serious at the same time is possible, and it defines the ideal mental condition. Absence of dogmatism and prejudice, presence of intellectual curiosity and flexibility, are manifest in the free play of the mind upon a topic. To give the mind this free play is not to encourage toying with a subject, but is to be interested in the unfolding of the subject on its own account, apart from its subservience to a preconceived belief or habitual aim. Mental play is open-mindedness, faith in the power of thought to preserve its own integrity with out external sup ports and arbitrary restrictions. Hence free mental play involves seriousness, the earnest following of the development of subject-matter. It is incompatible with carelessness or flippancy, for it exacts accurate noting of every result reached in order that every conclusion may be put to further use. What is termed the interest in truth for its own sake is certainly a serious matter, yet this pure interest in truth coincides with love of the free play of thought.

- John Dewey via the indefatigable Wes Fryer

Writing in 1870, Walt Whitman said, “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without; for I see clearly that the combined foreign world could not beat her down. But these savage, wolfish parties alarm me. Owning no law but their own will, more and more combative, less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood, the perfect equality of the States, the ever-overarching American Ideas, it behooves you to convey yourself implicitly to no party, nor submit blindly to their dictators, but steadily hold yourself judge and master over all of them.” And he said, “It is the fashion of dillettants [sic] and fops (perhaps I myself am not guiltless,) to decry the whole formulation of the active politics of America, as beyond redemption, and to be carefully kept away from. See that you do not fall into this error. America, it may be, is doing very well upon the whole, notwithstanding these antics of the parties and their leaders, these half-brained nominees, the many ignorant ballots, and many elected failures and blatherers.”

It is true that the period after the Civil War was a low point in American political history. And it is true also that the country came through it all at last, fairly intact by the standards that apply in such cases. This is reassuring to consider, since we now live in a political environment characterized by wolfishness and filled with blather. We have the passive pious, who feel they have proved their moral refinement in declaring the whole enterprise bankrupt, and we have the active pious, who agree with them, with the difference that they see some hope in a hastily arranged liquidation of cultural assets. It was Whitman’s faith that a great presiding spirit of Democracy would check, or correct for, the worst deficiencies of the civilization. It may indeed have been that ideal that kept us on course, or allowed us finally to find our way back to a better and healthier national life, then and in all the other periods in our history when our politics have seemed to be beyond redemption. Whitman says Democracy “is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.”

Whitman was a Quaker and he wrote as one: “I say the real and permanent grandeur of these States must be their religion, / Otherwise there is just no real and permanent grandeur; / (nor character nor life worthy the name without religion…).” This is from Leaves of Grass, and so is this: “All parts away for the progress of souls, / All religion, all solid things, arts, governments, all that was or is / apparent upon this globe or any globe, / falls into niches and corners / before the procession of souls along / the grand roads of the universe.” The vision of the soul, all souls, realizing itself in the course of transforming everything that has constrained it and them, finds expression in many writers of the period, prominent among them Emerson, Melville, and Dickinson, and in later writers such as William James and Wallace Stevens. For all of them creeds fall away and consciousness has the character of revelation. To identify sacred mystery with every individual experience, every life, giving the word its largest sense, is to arrive at democracy as an ideal, and to accept the difficult obligation to honor others and oneself with something approaching due reverence. It is a vision that is wholly religious though by no means sectarian, wholly realist in acknowledging the great truth of the centrality of human consciousness, wholly open in that it anticipates and welcomes the disruption of present values in the course of finding truer ones.

- Marilynne Robinson, from the preface to her new collection of essays When I Was a Child I Read Books

Friday, March 23, 2012

No Apologies?

In yesterday's post I wrote briefly about Stephen Greenblatt's Swerve and mentioned that it dealt in part with the role that (the rediscovery of a manuscript by) Lucretius had to play in the evolution of the modern world view, or at least that particular view modern world view referred to both by its adherents and its detractors as secular humanism. In his introduction, Greenblatt talks about his own personal first encounter with Lucretius, when, as a college student on a limited book budget, he pulled a copy of De Rerum Natura, marked down to ten cents, out of a used-book bin, more or less on a whim, and took it home to read. Somewhat to his own surprise, he found that the text was exercising an unexpected power over him, and that one of the sources of that power was that the text conveyed "an astonishingly convincing account of the way things actually are."

The stuff of the universe, Lucretius proposed, is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space, like dust motes in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaselss process of creation and destruction. There is not escape from this process. When you look up at the night sky and, feeling unaccountably moved, marvel at the numberless stars, you are not seeing the handiwork of the gods or a crystalling sphere detach from our transient world. You are seeing the same material world of which you are a part and from whose elements you are made. All things, including the species to which you belong, have evolved over vast stretches of time. The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms it involves a principle of natural selection. That is, species that are suited to survive and reproduce successfully endure, at least for a time; those that are not so well suited die off quickly. But nothing—from our own species to the planet on which we live to the sun that lights our days—lasts forever. Only the atoms are immortal.

In a universe so constituted, Lucretius argued, there is no reason to think that the earth or its inhabitants occupy a central place, no reason to set humans apart from all other animals, no hope of bribing or appeasing the gods, no place for religious fanaticism, no call for ascetic self-denial, no justification for dreams of limitless power or perfect security, no rationale for wars of conquest or self-aggrandizement, no possibility of triumphing over nature, no escape from the constant making and unmaking and remaking of forms. On the other side of anger at those who either peddled false visions of security or incited irrational fears of death, Lucretius offered a feeling of liberation and the power to stare down what had once seemed so menacing. What human beings can and should do, he wrote, is to conquer their fears, accept the fact that they themselves and all the things they encounter are transitory, and embrace the beauty and the pleasure of the world. (6)

Greenblatt marvels, as I do, "that these perceptions were fully articulated in a work written more than two thousand years ago. Later in the preface, he talks about the impact of the rediscovery of the work in the 1400's and its impact on Renaissance thought, in which "something… surged up against the constraints that centuries had constructed around curiosity, desire, individuality, sustained attention to the material world, the claims of the body."

The transformation was not sudden or once-for-all, but it became increasingly possible to turn away from a preoccupation with angels and demons and immaterial causes and to focus instead on things in this world; to understand that humans are made of the same stuff as everything else and are part of the natural order; to conduct experiments without fearing that one is infringing on God's jealously guarded secrets; to question authorities and challenge received doctrines; to legitimate the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain; to imagine that there are other worlds beside the one that we inhabit; to entertain the thought that the sun is only one star in an infinite universe; to live an ethical life without reference to postmortem rewards and punishments; to contemplate without trembling the death of the soul. In short, it became possible—never easy, but possible—in the poet Auden's phrase to find the mortal world enough. (10)

Perhaps it is less surprising that these realizations, once articulated, found their way into public discourse and began to re-shape the human experience, than that after so many centuries, many if not most of the firmly held if implausible beliefs that "the centuries," and perhaps more centrally the dogmas of various religious organizations, are still so firmly and self-righteously proclaimed in the face of all evidence to the contrary. The current state of political paralysis in this country owes a great deal to elected representatives who seem to be incapable of imagining that there might be any point of view worth considering other than their own.

In the New Yorker which arrived in the mail today (March 19 – lucky you live Hawaii), Louis Menand reviews and reflects upon Michael Kranish and Scott Helman's biography The Real Romney. In the middle of that article Menand writes:

Still, despite the multiple incongruencies surrounding his candidacy, Romney's campaign pitch will, in the end, almost certainly be the Republican pitch no matter who the nominee turns out to be. The pitch is that Obama and the democrats believe we've entered a "post-American" world, a world in which the United States is no longer the preeminent power on the planet but just one nation among many; and the Administration's policies are designed to manage this decline in our status, not reverse it. Democrats have abandoned "greatness" talk; Republicans want to bring it back. "I believe in American exceptionalism," as Romney says. This is the belief for which he offers "no apology."

There are a lot of notions out there today, being fiercely promulgated as truth by self-appointed know-it-alls, that might be less dangerous if there were room for at least some tiny quotient of apology in the equation: the notion that America is a special case and therefore should get to play by its own rules; the notion that by virtue of the country of our birth we are somehow more worthy or more virtuous or more deserving of the material and cultural benefits we have inherited; the notion that women should not have the choice to determine what happens inside their own bodies; the notion that those who see things differently than we do, or worship differently than we do, or have a different skin color than we do, or speak a different language than we do, or think differently than we do, are somehow morally and culturally inferior to us. These are the notions that, arising as they do from cast-iron, unapologetic certainty accompanied, in too many circumstances, by a willingness to go all the way to extermination to enforce, have caused untold misery and conflict throughout human history and into the present moment. If only in our current national and international political climate there were more reason to believe that the openminded and openhearted vision of Lucretius and his latter-day disciples might ultimately prevail.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Borrow My Book?

I'm reading Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, which is an erudite and surprisingly entertaining book about the origins of modernism. Greenblatt has a lot to say along the way about the history of books and the various means by which reading has been either encourages or discouraged by the prevailing technologies (not to mention political and religious forces) of particular eras.

One recurring narrative thread in the book features the efforts of one Italian layman, Poggio Bracciolini, who in 1417 was going from monastery to monastery seeking out rare or unusual books. He could never be sure of his reception, because, as Greenblatt points out:

Books were scarce and valuable. They conferred prestige on the monastery that possessed them, and the monks were not inclined to let them out of their sight, particularly if they had any prior experience with light-fingered Italian humanists. On occasion monasteries tried to secure their possession by freighting their precious manuscripts with curses.

Greenblatt then offers this example, which made me sit up and take notice for two reasons: first, because it's disconcerting specific and startlingly forceful curse, but second, because I actually remember having run across this text when I was in college, and in fact had in made into a bookplate that I glued into several of my more prized volumes:

For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.

So there. You want to borrow my book? Sure. Just read the terms of the contract and sign here...

Spoiler alert: Poggio does manage to liberate one manuscript, De Rerum Natura by Lucretius, and that manuscript winds up playing a key role in the development of modern consciousness.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012



Starting point. An opening.
What's missing: Absence. Zero.
Zilch. Naught. An empty space.
Sound of being taken off guard.
Coin, perhaps, or plate, or wheel.
Sun. Moon. Egg. Zygote. Maw.
Bucket as seen by a descending
drop. Target. Lens. Operator
Partner to x, and sometimes y.
Hug with kisses. Wedding ring.
Circularity. World without end.
Orbit. What the compass said.
Business end of a barrel.
Bullet hole. Alpha's omega.
Peephole. Stasis. Enso. Stain.
"Absolutely not" with N.
Odor with body, out with knock.
Face without eyes, the eye itself,
iris. Boundary. Clique. Nailhead.
Brain pan. Binary "Off." Omphalos.
In soccer: nil. In tennis: love.
Belated realization. Abject failure.
Beginning and end. What's left
When there's nothing to say.

Process Reflection: The idea for this came to me a while back when I was scrolling through my recent blog posts and saw the post I had done last July about the letter "E." Like that one, this is just a list poem, a right-brain exercise, inventorying associations I could make with that particular shape. The fun part in writing it was playing with the sequences of sounds, the singularities, the surprises. I started out just writing things as they came into my head but spent a lot of time rearranging them, substituting words ("maw" for "mouth," for example), trying to tighten up and cut back on stray syllables. I knew I needed an exit line and liked the little double entendre I came up with in the last line, but then had to go back and replace "nothing," in the third line with "naught," which I actually like better, now that it's there. I felt the same way in writing this that I often do when I'm working on an abstract drawing, which was focused down in a way that makes time sort of disappear.

That was yesterday. Today a motorcycle starting up next door woke me up at 4:30 a.m. and as I lay in the dark in other words and phrases began occurring to me, so I grabbed a pen and paper and lay in the half-darkness, scribbling them down as they came. That has always been an interesting time for me when I'm writing: in the space between waking and sleep the brain seems to work a little more fluidly, with the kind of associative logic (or illogic) of dreams. So this morning it was a matter of folding the new material into what was already there.

So this is where it is now, subject to further consideration.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Stealing Home

Put your arms around me
Like a circle round the sun
You know I'll love you baby
When my easy riding’s done
You don't believe I love you
Look at the fool I've been
You don't believe I'm sinking
Look at the hole I'm in
Stealing, stealing
Pretty mama don't you tell on me
I'm just stealing back to my
Same old used to be

- Gus Cannon/Arlo Guthrie

I’ve been away for a while. I’ve been elsewhere. I’ve been otherwise. I’ve been doing a lot of drawing and a lot of work and a fair amount of reading and thinking, but not a lot of writing. And now I’m back. Perhaps for a visit. Perhaps to settle in for a while.

My recent reading has included The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. It’s a novel about baseball. Sort of. Three of the five main characters are in fact baseball players, and the novel spans several years in the trajectory of a particular college baseball team on a quest for the national championship. (The other two main characters are the president of the school, and his daughter Pella, a prodigal daughter recently returned home.) The book is in a very literal way a sports story, relying on familiar and somewhat reassuring sports motifs. But it is also in a very literary way an odyssey, relying just as much, if not moreso, on analogy and allusion and archetype. The history and intellectual identity of Westish College, for example, is linked up with Herman Melville, whose spiritual presence suffuses the pages of this book in playful ways (the name of the school team is the Harpooners, and the central character is named Henry Scrimshander), but also in more subtle and resonant ways. It’s a story about the heroic ambitions—not to say obsessions, although there are plenty of those—of ordinary people, and how those ambitions bring them to grief, but also somehow redeem them. Here, for example, is Henry Scrimshander, considering what condition his condition is in:

All he’d ever wanted was for nothing to ever change. Or for things to change only in the right ways, improving little by little, day by day, forever. It sounded crazy when you said it like that, but that was what baseball had promised him, what Westish College had promised him... The dream of every day the same. Every day was like the day before but a little better. You ran the stadium a little faster. You bench-pressed a little more. You hit the ball a little harder in the cage; you watched the tape afterward and gained a little insight into your swing. Your swing grew a little simpler. Everything grew simpler, little by little. You ate the same food, woke up at the same time, wore the same clothes. Hitches, bad habits, useless thoughts—whatever you didn’t need slowly fell away. Whatever was simple and useful remained. You improved little by little till the day it all became perfect and stayed that way. Forever. He knew it sounded crazy when you put it like that. To want to be perfect. To want everything to be perfect. But now it felt like that was all he’d ever craved since he’d been born. Maybe it wasn’t even baseball that he loved but only this idea of perfection, a perfectly simple life in which every move had meaning, and baseball was just the medium through which he could make that happen. Could have made that happen. It sounded crazy, sure. But what did it mean if your deepest hope, the premise on which you’d based your whole life, sounded crazy as soon as you put it in words? It meant you were crazy.

The book does not limit itself to the realm of sport. It also considers, investigates, and in a sense interrogates other sorts of complicated dynamics in human relations, including not just the two most obvious, eros and thanatos, although both figure into the story, but the very act of writing itself: Here, for example, is (Westish College President) Guert Affenlight, looking back on his early ambitions to be a novelist, like his hero Herman Melville:

It was easy enough to write a sentence, but if you were going to create a work of art, the way Melville had, each sentence needed to fit perfectly with the one that preceded it, and the unwritten one that would follow. And each of those sentences needed to square with the ones on either side, so that three became five and five became seven, seven became nine, and whichever sentence he was writing became the slender fulcrum on which the whole precarious edifice depended. That sentence could contain anything, anything, and so it promised the kind of absolute freedom that, to Affenlight’s mind, belonged to the artist and the artist alone. And yet that sentence was also beholden to the book’s very first one, and its last unwritten one, and every sentence in between. Every phrase, every word, exhausted him.

There’s a quote attributed to Dostoevsky that says “There are only two stories: a man leaves home, and a stranger comes to town.” He might have added a third, one which does not always happen but has an archetypal resonance when it does: the man finds his way back home. The Art of Fielding is that story. Among others. It’s a very deliberate, thoughtful, satisfying book.

And maybe this is that post as well.

Monday, March 19, 2012


So the other day I was in a meeting, and there was a series of ideas that were being tossed out in a sort of logical sequence. But what I found as I was listening was that each of those ideas was spinning off several other ideas in my head, which I was trying to follow as well, to the degree that that was possible each off into its own little rabbit hole into which it would disappear before I had fully grasped where it was going. While I sat there trying to keep one part of my mind aligned with the main thread of the discussion and more or less noting the other ideas popping up and skittering away, I was also doodling in my notebook, and what I was drawing on the page was actually more or less a loose schematic of the way my brain was processing the meeting. I put a series of little boxes representing the ideas, and then some zigzaggy lines coming off of each one representing the spinoffs. Then I colored in the background black so that the boxes and lines would be white on a black field:

That night, at home, I decided to put together a somewhat more composed and stylized version of the drawing. I've been working for several months on a series of small-format black and white abstract drawings (roughly 3"x5" on a 5" x 7" piece of paper). The challenge has been to try to invent a new geometry in each piece. Often I get the ideas for these more formal studies from things that spring up more or less at random when I'm in meetings, and that's what happened here. The resulting piece:

Then on Friday I was at a TEDx event at my school and a friend of mine was sitting behind me and looked over my shoulder and noticed another geometrical study taking shape on my notebook page. "Oh, do you do Zentangles?" she asked? I had no idea what she was talking about, but it turns out there's a whole subculture of obsessive geometrical doodlers of which I was unaware. In addition to the Zentangle web site there are about a bazillion videos on various techniques to create interesting-looking geometrical abstractions, including this one which illustrates the making of a circular "Zendala" or Zen mandala:

Cool stuff. Who knew?