Monday, February 28, 2005


BHR pointed out some talk of conspiracy theories, which link coincidentally I'd had buried in my drafts with notes on where Dan Brown's audience will go (assuming it will some day tire of him) and some profound insight quoted from Umberto Eco, waiting for an inspired moment to coalesce into something interesting and having a point. But I will throw them out now.

The discussion uses the conspiracy behind the DaVinci Code (that is, behind the story told in the book, not the one behind its being a blockbuster phenomenon) as a starting point to share some links regarding Templars and precisely these kinds of arcane thrillers while observing along the way that stories about the Templars bring out the lunatics (or maybe the lunatic in all of us). (There's something profound to be said on this — I can feel it. Long pause. Not today.)

One link led me to a recent piece by Eco:

Modern science does not hold that what is new is always right. On the contrary, it is based on the principle of "fallibilism" (enunciated by the American philosopher Charles Peirce, elaborated upon by Popper and many other theorists, and put into practice by scientists.

According to this principle, science progresses by continually correcting itself, falsifying its hypotheses by trial and error, admitting its own mistakes — and by considering that an experiment that doesn't work out is not a failure but is worth as much as a successful one, because it proves that a certain line of research was mistaken and it is necessary either to change direction or even to start over from scratch.

See, that has nothing whatsoever to do with Templars. The previous post shall serve as a reminder never to write and publish entries in the middle of the night, sneaking away from that work deadline for just a minute. As shall this update serve to remind that when one has had less than 2 hours' sleep, increased coffee consumption is required in order to approach the usual level of early morning lucidity, and this has not yet occurred.

Refer to these excellent instructions on reading and digesting books.

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.
— Mark Twain


The Geographer's Library, by Jon Fasman, was reviewed over the weekend, and I'm adding it to my list. It's called an "arcane thriller" but is distinct from and smarter than those books still riding the wave of the DaVinci Code.

Yes, the story features obscure books in forgotten tongues, secret brotherhoods, exotic locales and clever puzzles, but Fasman comes across as a novelist genuinely interested in unraveling the convention of the thriller, and he gives his tale a delightfully and successfully postmodern flavor. And rather than presenting obscure knowledge as valuable only because it gets you things, he is far more interested in showing how physical things lead to knowledge.

Unlike most arcane thrillers, which are ultimately mundane thrillers gussied up with the occasional info dump, The Geographer's Library makes an effort to get readers off their intellectual duffs by presenting the artifacts in catalog format, separating them from the narrative and demanding that they be seen as elements of a puzzle rather than props in a set piece.

The arcane thriller is typified by Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, and Foucault's Pendulum also fits the criteria. Also, to some degree Lev Grossman's Codex, which I read recently, and a favourite, Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas. All of these put Dan Brown to shame. Are there so few books (and such little interest) in this niche?

Friday, February 25, 2005

Canada reads

Really, it does.

This year, after a week-long battle of the books Canada reads Rockbound, by Frank Parker Day, a book I know nothing about.

I was rooting for Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, mostly because I've already read it (rather than for its actual virtues, which are many), and its winning would alleviate for me the obligation of adding one more book to the to-read pile and the guilt for not getting around to it soon enough. (Not that I've read all of the winning books of years past.) Oryx and Crake was the last of the lot to be voted out, no thanks to Olivia Chow, who defended it poorly.

(I'm sure all the contenders are worth reading, but I'd only ever even heard of just one other, Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers, a copy of which I picked up at a garage sale for a quarter about a decade ago and which does in fact sit in that stack by my bed.)

Rockbound is an "early" Canadian novel and was defended by Donna Morrissey. Though she is a lively, entertaining, and articulate debater and a likeable person, I have a hard time trusting her judgement of what fine literature is, for she must've applied some of that same judgement in the writing of Kit's Law, which I hated.

Roch Carrier yesterday, in response to arguments leveled against Rockbound, grandly proclaimed:
"All the great literature is regional. What is more regional than the Bible? What is more regional than Shakespeare?"
"All great works are predictable."
and his bearing and voice are such that you know he has great wisdom and it must be true.
(Discuss amongst yourselves.)

(Roch Carrier, former National Librarian, is an icon and author of a cultural treasure [depicted here]. He was the keynote speaker at a conference for editor types I attended a few years ago, and while I was aware of and respected his reputation, I was charmed and impressed by his detailed knowledge of and passion for Saramago's The History of the Siege of Lisbon, which he cited as an example in speaking about the power of the proofreader and of the written, and unwritten, word. Also I was greatly saddened that so many in that audience of editor types were saying What was that title? Who? — that not only were they not aware of the existence of a recent Nobel prize winner, they did not know this poignant story relevant to their profession.)

Did you know it's Freedom to Read Week? And it's almost over. On some level I must've known, for all week long I've been saying things like "Work be damned — I am free to read." and "I will not be a slave to you, Television. I am free to read." and "Housecleaning's for dummies. Where's my book?"

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Choosing her words

Helena is growing up bilingual.

Looking at pictures: "Pas cow, Mama — c'est vache."

Looking at the sky: "Pas la lune — la moon."

I figure farm animals are a big deal at (the French) daycare, whereas her knowledge of the moon stems from our frequent reading of Kitten's First Full Moon.

I'll be curious to see what patterns emerge regarding which language she chooses to express different concepts.

It's clear to me that she thinks in two languages.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The proven truth

How intelligent is intelligent design?

In mammals, for instance, the recurrent laryngeal nerve does not go directly from the cranium to the larynx, the way any competent engineer would have arranged it. Instead, it extends down the neck to the chest, loops around a lung ligament and then runs back up the neck to the larynx. In a giraffe, that means a 20-foot length of nerve where 1 foot would have done. If this is evidence of design, it would seem to be of the unintelligent variety.

Jim Holt pokes some holes in (and fun at?) the alternative to Darwinism.

(Via Collision Detection — see the comments there for further arguments and explanations.)


For some reason, some review I read somewhere, quite some time ago, inspired me to jot down a title: Amanda Bright@Home, by Danielle Crittenden (May 2003). I suppose it was that review that brought to my attention that there was such a thing as mommy lit, and that, essentially, it was about me, the same way that Bridget Jones and Sex and the City were about my friends.

I've never read any mommy lit. I've read books about women who had children and women who were incidentally pregnant, but I don't think the genre includes, say, Brick Lane or the novels featuring a pregnant Thursday Next.

Last week I read amanda_bright@home (as it is oh so cleverly styled), proving that I have not lost the ability to read altogether and, when circumstances are right, can squeeze out time for a silly book and lose myself in it.

The title character is the stay-at-home mom of 2 kids, ages 3 and 5.

The writing is not very good. Some of this may be excused considering the novel was originally serialized (in the Wall Street Journal); small chunks set against financial news may not appear so lifeless, sapped of all colour and energy, as when bound in a single volume.

Just a few pages in, there's this:
"Her own practical one-piece was faded and stretched after many summers of propelling toddlers through the shallow end of her public pool."
"...five years of constant interruption from small children had taught them both to wait for the right moment to talk."

Although I can relate to the feeling of a constant demand for my attention, you'd think she tended a large brood that never left her side, when in fact the children when not in preschool are entertaining each other or are being watched by other people's nannies (not that this makes a mother's experience easy). We don't see much of Amanda's daily life with her children. To be fair, this is not a book about raising kids; it's the story of the mother's perception, the mother's life — those moments of self between the mother times, the spaces in her head. However, a little more of the day-to-day might've made Amanda a more sympathetic character.

The bigger problem is that there is no sense of Amanda's "real" self on which to hang a story.

Amanda considers returning to work. Her business suits hang in the closet. The point is made repeatedly that she's college-educated and that the play-group mothers are vapid even if they were once professionals. That she wants adult interaction. But we're given no glimpse of her education, her work, her interests. How do you sympathize with nothing? Maybe that's the point — she doesn't know who she is anymore than we do. Motherhood can do that to a woman.

For a subplot, Amanda's few-days-long lust for a stay-at-home playwright dad is dispelled when his play is poorly received at a seniors' home. I was completely removed from her embarrassment and the overwhelming shame of her feelings. Likewise, her jealousy regarding a woman of her husband's acquaintance is out of proportion with what little we know of Amanda's emotional life.

I can't feel sorry for her. I can't root for her. I don't particularly like her. I don't know her at all.

I find it hard to fathom the gusto with which the blurbs lavish praise on this book. The characters are weak; the humour is mild; the emotions not believable; the resolution unsatisfactory. (Just like real life?) Reviewers, perhaps, merely were excited to herald a birth — chick-lit chicks "grow up" (age, anyway) and have babies.

Perhaps this novel is evidence of the difficulty of capturing the essence of "Everymother." While packed with circumstances and events that any mother can relate to superficially, there is no universal truth. Mothers' stories ought to be told, but they deserve more reflection and care in the telling.

A bit of escapist fluff. I loved hating every page of it. An antidote to recent "mommy madness."

There is commentary everywhere regarding Judith Warner's Newsweek article.

From the New York Times review of the book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety:
Warner channels a big, explosive feeling, which she identifies as frustration at "the mommy mystique" or, more resonantly, "this mess."

Other quotable bits:
  • Just because we have issue fatigue, that doesn't mean we don't have an issue.
  • For all its excesses, overparenting is still preferable to its alternative.
  • But insofar as mothers with jobs and mothers without them could conceivably band together to form a very large interest group, we do represent a whopping opportunity for change. Whether we take that opportunity depends on whether we can pull ourselves out of our mess long enough to persuade those around us to clean up theirs.

  • In an interview with Salon, Warner starts out sounding reasonable enough, but it doesn't take long to spark controversy:
    One generation back, our mothers didn't put the same pressures on themselves to be sitting on the floor, building with Legos. They were ironing or gardening or cooking dinner or talking on the phone, and not feeling guilty about doing that.

    The bad memories that women seem to have, interestingly enough, is of overinvolved mothers who were frustrated and unhappy with their lives and who were overinvested in their children as a result.

    Warner goes on to proclaim that it's a lost cause to get fathers to do their fair share.

    Of note, and not exactly, but kind of, in keeping with the generally accusatory tone of her articles:
    I think that parents have to take some responsibility for their children's behavior. In the past, I know, mothers were blamed for absolutely everything, and this was ridiculous and hateful. I am very clear to say in the book that I don't want to play into that same history of mother blaming.

    However, I think that we have gone too far now in the direction of avoiding parent blaming — and this is an issue of parental behavior, not just of mothers'. It is now politically incorrect to even talk about the family environment as playing a role in children's "issues" — behavioral or emotional. Everything now is brain chemistry and genetics, and, frankly, while that is up to a point true, it also lets parents and society, which is the larger point of the book, entirely off the hook.

    While I in no way want to add to mothers' guilt, I think it does our children a great disservice to not even open our minds and hearts to the possibility that some of the things we do — and by "we" I mean mothers and fathers and educators and society; I can't make this point strongly enough — have deleterious effects.

    Me on mommy dilemmas and motherhood supports: I don't know.

    I remind myself: "Just because we have issue fatigue, that doesn't mean we don't have an issue."

    Tuesday, February 22, 2005

    Where I'm from

    Pratie Place has another wonderful meme, which is producing some breathtakingly evocative results.

    It's an exercise in poetry, inspired by a poem by George Ella Lyons.

    The assignment is detailed at Fragments from Floyd, where a template is available (remember that all the best templates are meant to be modified).

    (I'm thinking I must be missing school, or having a job with clearly defined tasks, because I'm loving these writing exercises.)

    Where I'm From
    I am from grapes in a garden city, where everyone would revel during the harvest.
    I don't remember many gardens, but once there were orchards where our house stood.
    In one flowerbed, behind our house, my siblings dug a hole among the sunflowers to plant me.

    I am from the secrets and wisdom of matriarchy, from Alina and Helena.
    But I am from the Stanislaw, too, and the conviction of his beliefs, for which he would risk everything, many times over.
    The others are strangers.

    From mosquito-filled summers, looking for ghosts and aliens in the woods, blinding bats with our battery lights.
    From Nancy Drew and a violin.
    From a scholastic experiment, with games and puzzles and travels, and exercises in futurism.
    "Everything will be better in the morning."

    I arrived in a Popemobile, moving in modern way. There were many rituals, but no one remembers what they mean. When nobody answers me I read philosophy and science.

    I come from parsnip, radish, and beets. I filled up on soup. I hated milky tea.
    Now I drink tea with lemon from a glass.
    But like others, I measure many days with coffee spoons.

    From the Soviet prison for dropping leaflets at school, trading bread for cigarettes, because he was young and didn't know better, and the battle at Monte Cassino.
    She was on trains. Lvov to Archangelsk. Samarkand, Tashkent, Dzhambul, Alma Ata, and back again. Tehran and blind from malnutrition. In India finally, she left her malarial body for a moment's peace.
    In England, they fell in love and crossed the ocean.

    I am proud on bookshelves and hidden in shoeboxes. My mother can't remember all the names and places, but we keep looking, searching the glint in their eyes for clues.

    I am from the mirth of she who has come after me. She has my grandmother's name.

    Monday, February 21, 2005

    Refrigerator and bathtub

    A lightbulb moment
    Helena likes to stand in front of the refrigerator, door open. When she first became mobile and wanted to see what was in the fridge, I let her. We identified fruits and vegetables and other consumables. It was a learning experience. Now, it's annoying. The kitchen is small. It's nigh impossible to tear her way until she's finished her inspection without the frustrated tears of a task incomplete, or else bodily injury. For some time, I took her obsession as a sign she was hungry. I'd point and ask: yogourt? would you like some mango? maybe some cheese? I've decided hunger has nothing to do with it.

    Helena has discovered the little button, the one the door closes on to make the light go off. Now she worms her way in front of me when I open the fridge to press the button to make the light go off. Repeatedly.

    Sunday morning Helena had the longest bath ever. We usually bathe her in the evening, but she was overdue and exceptionally grimy, and it being bloody cold outside it seemed like a good way to spend the morning, maybe even encourage a nap.

    For whatever reason, she put her hands down in front, propping herself up as if to crawl, reach for a toy maybe. Then she straightened her legs out behind her. Kick, kick. "Swim!" She rested on her knees to tentatively draw up her hands to "stroke" the water — doggy paddle, then more exaggerated, like a front crawl. Hands back down, kick the legs some more. "Swim!"

    Does she remember summer days we spent at the wading pool?

    Occasionally when I pick up or drop off Helena at daycare we walk through the underground mall and pass a glass door behind which is the swimming pool of the YMCA. From metres away she points and cries "Piscine!" and runs up to press her nose against the door. She waves and yells "Hallo!" to all the swimmers behind the door, who cannot hear her. She makes swimmy-fish motions with her arm. "Plouf!"

    Time to sign her up for swimming lessons. Our bathtub's not big enough.

    Saturday, February 19, 2005

    Tractatus orthographicus

    Ludwig Wittgenstein spent 6 years teaching in rural Austrian schools. During that time he composed a spelling dictionary, proofs of which are now on sale.

    Wittgenstein's dictionary is rich in the flavour of an unsparingly analytical mind. In the preface, he writes of his method of organising the word entries: "Each instance of clinging to a dogmatic principle leads to an arrangement that does not suit our purpose and has to be abandoned, even if this would make the author's work much easier. Rather, it is necessary to compromise again and again."

    I took some courses in lexicography at university. (I learned weird and wonderful things from a linguist whose discourses inevitably travelled tangents to his youth when he worked as a bookbinder or involved obscure facts about the Maori.) I've studied dictionaries intensely, and now I use them in a professional capacity. Writing a dictionary of any sort is a vast undertaking.

    The Guardian also gives us:
    First five basic propositions of Wittgenstein's Tractatus
    1 The world is everything that is the case
    2 What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts
    3 The logical picture of the facts is the thought
    4 The thought is the significant proposition
    5 Propositions are truth-functions of elementary propositions. (An elementary proposition is a truth-function of itself)

    I understand dictionaries far better than I will ever understand Wittgenstein.

    In which I'm caught with my pants down

    Helena barged in on me in the bathroom this morning.

    "Bravo, Mama. Mama fait pipi dans l'pot. Toute seule! Bravo!"

    There was much glee and hand-clapping, as if she were genuinely proud of "what a big girl" her mother is. Thanks, Mom, for not pissing on the floor.

    Friday, February 18, 2005


    Edmund: Oh, codswallop! It's taken me seven years, and it's perfect. "Edmund: A Butler's Tale." A giant roller coaster of a novel in four hundred sizzling chapters. A searing indictment of domestic servitude in the eighteenth century, with some hot gypsies thrown in. My magnum opus, Baldrick. Everybody has one novel in them, and this is mine.
    Baldrick: And this is mine [takes small piece of paper from front of his trousers]. My magnificent octopus.
    — "Ink and Incapability," Blackadder III

    Everything you ever wanted to know about octopus.

    The octopus has three hearts.

    Brainy octopus:
    Octopuses have intrigued scientists for years, because they have both long- and short-term memory, they remember solutions to problems, and they can go on to solve the same or similar problems. They have been known to climb aboard fishing boats and open holds in search of crabs. They can figure out mazes, open jars, and break out of their aquariums in search of food.

    The octopus's brain is wrapped around its esophagus.

    "A legend of the deep," Nature, PBS.
    Captive octopuses have been known to hide in aspirin bottles.

    Octopus robots:
    Understanding how the octopus controls eight flexible arms all at once could be the basis for developing the next generation of flexible robotic arms-long a goal among robotics engineers.

    Technically speaking, the octopus has arms, not tentacles. (The squid has eight arms plus two tentacles.) But I'd rather think of myself as tentacled than armed.

    Holding hands with the octopus:
    "It can be intimidating at first, because they wrap their arms pretty tight around you, and everything they latch onto is pretty much headed straight to their mouth," Schmitz said. "But once you get used to it, I can't describe it: They feel like wet velvet or wet silk."

    Despite its great strength, the octopus tires easily.

    Mythic octopus:
    Na Kika.
    Dr. Octopus.

    Literary octopus. Posted by Hello

    Octopus Magazine:
    Octopus is an online poetry magazine named after a sea creature that is intelligent, lives in dens, and uses ink as a defense mechanism. Every issue features a combination of 8.

    The octopus squirts clouds of ink to confuse its enemy.

    I don't often remember my dreams. One stays with me from around the time my grandmother died. We (I know my mother was there. Children? Family.) were in India (I've never been to India). We were picnicking on the edge of a deep, fully enclosed, still and dead sea, surrounded by desert. As I looked out over the water, I had flashes of what this place once was, or would be — a bone-dry pit, an elephant graveyard. I peered down over the sheer cliff-face, only to fall into the water. And I was dragged down. I came to in a doctor's office, was told I had the ink disease. My fingertips leaked blue.

    Tasty octopus.

    Edmund: This is your novel, Baldrick?
    Baldrick: Yeah — I can't stand long books.
    Edmund: [reads] "Once upon a time, there was a lovely little sausage called 'Baldrick', and it lived happily ever after."
    Baldrick: It's semi-autobiographical.

    Wednesday, February 16, 2005


    A 67-page essay by Harry G Frankfurt takes up a serious philosophical discussion of the matter:
    One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.

    Socrates called it rhetoric or sophistry — arguments that weren't really sound but that you could put over on people.

    [The bullshit artist] "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it," he writes. "He pays no attention to it at all."

    And this makes him, Mr. Frankfurt says, potentially more harmful than any liar, because any culture and he means this culture rife with [bull] is one in danger of rejecting "the possibility of knowing how things truly are."

    It's all about the love

    I blew off work early on Monday. You can do that when you're self-employed.

    I'd leave early to pick up Helena from daycare. It was a shitty damp day, but I needed fresh air and change of scene if I was going to get anything done this week.

    I'd stop by a bookstore to centre myself (always a risky proposition — if it works, it works; if it doesn't, I get angry and stay miserable for days).

    As if to taunt me, there in the bargain stacks was Don Quixote — the handy-dandy cheap paperback version. I stared it down, casually turned one copy over in my hands, tossed it back. Smollett, hah! Just to spite Cervantes, I bought some chick lit.

    I stepped outside to the freshness of falling snow and church bells on the breeze. There was a hustle and bustle of pedestrians carrying flowers and chocolates and other packages. This was as good as Christmas. Suddenly, love was in the air.

    I've never been a big fan of Valentine's Day. Sometimes J-F and I exchange tokens, sometimes not. But we celebrate love when we can. Still, any excuse will do to order in Chinese food and just be in each other's company, setting aside all the daily worries for a few hours.

    (My fortune: "A thrilling time is in your immediate future.")

    (We're pretty sure Helena was conceived on Valentine's Day, or maybe it was the day after.)

    Anyway, things are looking up. My blahs — whether February-related or work-inspired, whatever — are lifting.

    I took a lead from Suzanne and proclaimed Saturday "Get the Hell Out of the House Day." We wandered through neighbourhood shops. Helena fell in love with a hat among the new spring fashions; we bought it for her. We lunched, out.

    In other toddler news:

    Helena uses a fine-tip pen to draw all over her face. The ink did wash off, to reveal very many red scratch lines.

    Helena helps me make banana muffins, from scratch, since we have to do something with all those bananas she lately refuses to eat. She refuses to eat the banana muffins, but she serves them to her dolls. J-F hates banana, period. I'm having banana muffins for breakfast and snacks all week long.

    The way she rests her head on her hand when we sit at the table, like I do.

    Helena has pretty much toilet-trained herself. I haven't really done anything to promote this behaviour, so it amazes me that suddenly she's using the potty successfully 3 or 4 times a day, both at home and at daycare.

    Helena steps onto an escalator for the first time all by herself. The elation of vertigo in her face.

    Waiting for J-F to finish his workday so we could all go home together, watching the water fountain. Such intense oohing and aahing! Utter joy!

    In the writing of this, I realize that so many little developments of hers are going unremarked. That is, they're duly noted, but I fail to write them down, relegating them to memories. So many. I must try a little harder.

    It's snowing right now, and it's beautiful.

    Tuesday, February 15, 2005

    Helena and Calvino (Dec. 2002). BecausePosted by Hello

    Consciousness vs opium

    While I'm still considering what it means that the personal is political, that every act is in fact a political one, why we tend to check our politics at the door, and how to make a difference — while I'm twiddling my thumbs, Steve Almond, author of Candyfreak, is calling America's artists to arms.
    By including my political views, I was in direct violation of The First Law of Social Apathy, which holds a popular culture should exist divorced from any of the moral facts of its current political condition.

    What folks want from the pop — hell, what we deserve as tax–paying Americans — is a nice soothing mind bath. A few chuckles. A nice melodrama in which to park our emotions for a couple of hours. In a word: opium.

    This country's chief signifier is our staggering capacity to isolate ourselves from the effects of our political and lifestyle choices.

    This is the reason, for instance, that so many people can vote for a party that believes gays are sub–human but still watch "Queer Eye For the Straight Guy," (because fags are so darn funny!). It's also the reason liberals can drive around in SUVs, while decrying policies driven by oil–dependency.

    But of course it is one of the functions of art (yes, even popular art) to call people on such bullshit, to raise people's consciousness, to awaken their capacities for compassion.

    William Faulkner probably put this best in his 1951 speech, upon accepting the Nobel Prize: "The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."

    It seems to me that the time has come answer this call.

    Bourgeois living

    I tried to organize a book club once. We read 1984. A handful of people showed up. Most of us had read most of the book, or remembered it clearly enough from when we'd read it a decade beforehand, or had rewatched the movie recently. We drank a lot. We even discussed the book a little. I considered it a success.

    The social phenomenon of the book club is considered in The Guardian. "What is clear is that the book club is now a near-ubiquitous feature of bourgeois life."

    The discourse at reading groups does not often have much in common with the language of scholarship. Prof Currie and a fellow English literature don were once barred from a book club lest they ruin the fun with talk of structuralism and the like.

    For others, that expulsion might represent a happy revolution. According to Professor John Sutherland, of London University: "People are reclaiming the right to read from pointy-headed academics".

    The primary reason I'm not cut out for book clubs is that I want to read what I want to read. On my terms, on my schedule. At whatever level of depth I deem appropriate at the time. So this blog is my book club (and this discussion probably counts). I can drink however much I want. And I consider it a success.


    Many years ago I saw the film of Christo wrapping the Pont Neuf in Paris
    on television, and it blew me away. The audacity! It was weird and beautiful.

    More recently, we stumbled into an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, which included "preparatory drawings, collages, scale models, and photographs of the artists' large-scale projects, as well as several of Christo's early packages and wrapped objects."

    I haven't written anything here about The Gates in Central Park (except for the slim possibility of seeing it personally), because I assumed people would be sick to death of hearing about it. However, the few times I've mentioned it in recent days, people have no idea what I'm talking about. Be educated.

    The full New York Times coverage includes video and slide shows.

    About the unveiling. We didn't need the gates to make us sensitive, obviously. Art is never necessary. It is merely indispensable.

    Slide-show essay.

    Witold Rybczynski refrains from judging the aesthetic merits of the installation but provides some historical context:
    From the beginning, Olmsted and Vaux strenuously opposed all attempts to introduce art into the park. In their Greensward Plan of 1858 — the competition entry that won them the commission — they wrote that while it would be possible to build elegant buildings in the park, "we conceive that all such architectural structures should be confessedly subservient to the main idea, and that nothing artificial should be obtruded on the view." They considered art a similar distraction from the restorative purpose of the landscape.

    Christo and Jeanne-Claude official website: We believe that labels are important, but mostly for bottles of wine.

    All of Christo's work — by which I mean the "art" as well its logistics — is breathtaking, not least because of how quickly it's gone.

    Poetry in the news

    Pratie Place yesterday featured love poems, issued as an assignment to high school students, based on an article from The Wall Street Journal, in which every word comes from the story.

    Melinama has issued the challenge to le bloguemonde.

    Here's my poem (based on this story in today's paper):

    The Deal Was Rejected

    The surprising move was made
    during his secret meeting.
    They met late into the night.

    Their union is aggressive.

    Player costs are the centrepiece —
    the bid for certainty
    is unable
    to build enough momentum.

    A roller-coaster day.

    Longstanding positions,
    dramatic moves,
    no progress.

    Roll back
    all existing contracts.
    The Devils boss offered advice:

    suffer the damage.
    So much has already
    gone by the wayside.

    Sunday, February 13, 2005

    Other people's love stories

    Ten authors voice their favourites: some obvious choices and some obscure picks too. A.S. Byatt once again convinces me to hunt down something I've never heard of (E. Arnot Robertson's Four Frightened People) — the woman has impeccable taste (not to mention talent).

    Unsurprisingly, the Romantic Novelists' Association has voted Pride and Prejudice the most romantic novel of all time.

    The greatest love story of all? Heloise and Abelard (which always reminds me of this movie):

    The love stories that touch us most deeply are punctuated by human frailty. Look at them up close and you see the fault lines, compromises and anticlimaxes. At the beginning of Shakespeare's play, Romeo is just as intemperately in love with a girl called Rosaline as he is later with Juliet. Tristan and Isolde's passion could well be the fruit of substance abuse, of a love potion they drank unknowingly. And Abelard and Heloise? They weren't equally strong or passionate or generous. Still, they put their frailties together and begat a perfect myth, as well as something perhaps even more precious — a surprising, splendid, fractured reality. "There is a crack," the Leonard Cohen lyric goes, "a crack in everything: that's how the light gets in."

    Saturday, February 12, 2005

    The mysterious

    Today's Globe and Mail features a review of Alan Lightman's collection of essays, A Sense of the Mysterious:
    Einstein wrote in 1931: "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science."

    What Lightman means by "the mysterious" is not something New Agey or supernatural, but rather "a sense that we can stand right at the edge between known and unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened." What thrills Lightman is that in some deeply mysterious way, the human mind can bring some part of the unknown into the light of knowing.

    Science is a powerful tool for generating reliable knowledge of the world. Art makes us aware of the abiding mystery. "Just as the world needs both certainty and uncertainty, the world needs questions with answers and questions without answers," Lightman writes.

    It's reviewed also in the New York Times:
    Like Oliver Sacks, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins and countless others, Lightman is that phenomenon mistakenly believed to be rare: a scientist in love with words, one who can write clearly and appealingly about his subject for a lay readership. Science happens to be excellent training for literature; it calls for both narrative ability and a grasp of style, and it sometimes seems as though the ''arts-science divide'' simply reflects the humanities' refusal to believe that anything that originates in a lab could possibly be attractive.

    Friday, February 11, 2005


    I haven't been feeling myself of late. I can't quite pinpoint why. Mostly, I don't feel rested. My mind won't let me rest.

    Just this afternoon I tried to nap, something I very rarely do and keep telling myself I should do more often. Sleep would not come. Sometimes it's enough just to close one's eyes for a few minutes. Not today.

    One night this week I vowed to get to bed at a decent hour, and I in fact enjoyed a full 7 hours of sleep before Helena woke at 5 in the morning. The problem is, having tasted that little bit of heaven, I know now what I'm missing, and I want so much more.

    I've been trying to discipline myself to work efficiently and productively within set hours, with definable goals. Limit my distractions. I told myself no blogging, and no books to read either. The plan is backfiring.

    I haven't read a book (or any part thereof) — apart from Jamberry and Bootsie Barker Bites — in a week. I've set reading up as reward for completing work. In addition, I've limited that reward to Don Quixote.

    I've enjoyed every word I've read so far, but the hardcover Grossman translation is effing huge. Were it not this brick, I would have broken my reward rule a thousand times over, sneaking it into the bathroom for a page or two a couple times a day, finishing out a chapter while hovering in the kitchen waiting for water to boil, even letting it rest in my lap so I could thumb ahead between work bits just to see what lay in store for me at the next tea or bathroom break. I know myself to this extent. I really would have.

    (Why it is that the DQ above any other reading matter rule takes precedence over the reward rule, I do not know. It just does.)

    But it's a fucking brick. The reading of it is an event. It requires a certain posture, with full support. Setting up the context for it requires so much time and energy in itself, which I'm having trouble generating.

    Too, I've been blogging less (did you notice?). Because all that time I spend sitting in front of a computer blogging could be channeled into my work. I've spent many hours this week, fingers poised on the keyboard, simply staring at this screen. Staring.

    I did finally start staring at other blogs, just to break the monotony. Perhaps I'm hanging out in all the wrong places. They're making me angry (this, of course, is exacerbated by not being fully rested).

    [The biggest change I've noticed in myself since becoming a mother is that I'm more ready to take a stance, voice an opinion. It's not just because there's a child to protect in a stupid-one-day,-evil-the-next world. Not just because she's the Reason for and Meaning of everything now. Not just taking on adult responsibility. It's something to do with my growing up, growing into myself. Everything's in sharper focus now.

    Anyway, I find myself wondering where and how to direct this strength, this resolve. Il blogamundi is rife with petty squabbles, but I've also tired of the can't-we-be-reasonable, can't-we-all-just-get-along chatter. I'm at a silly and tiresome cocktail party, when I'd rather be at the afterparty, when only a few people are left and someone brings out the good bottle they've been saving for between friends and someone else switches the music over to dark and brooding jazz, and we're tired but comfortable, not afraid to talk about religion and politics, life and love, cuz these are fundamental things — what it's all made of.

    The personal is political, dammit. It's starting to anger me, and for this reason I don't feel rested. Maybe it will stir me to action. More on this (probably) in days to come.]

    As of this moment, I am lifting the restrictions on myself, cuz they just ain't working for me. The books and the blogs keep my brain oiled and running smoothly. The book offers an escape, the blog offers a dumping ground — both help keep my mind organized and rested.

    Thursday, February 10, 2005


    "All your life you live so close to truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque."
    — Tom Stoppard

    When the revolution comes
    Scientists speculate on the nature of the next revolution.
    "The big question is why these revolutions don't make us profoundly sad. We're reduced to bags of chemicals with no free will, living on a normal planet, but people still find that exciting," says Ramachandran. "I think it's because with greater understanding, we see ourselves as part of some grander scheme. We're part of something larger than ourselves and once we identify with that, it is not degrading, it's ennobling."

    Perhaps proof of parallel universes, the existence of extraterrestrial life, the possibility of artificial intelligence.

    Complete knowledge of our biological selves.

    Steven Pinker:
    Thinking is neural computation; wanting and trying are neural cybernetics (feedback systems, like your thermostat). All this means that humans are not special in having an essence that is separate from the material universe. It means no life after death. That, in turn, means no divine rewards or punishments in a world to come. It means that our minds, not just our bodies, were descended from those of apes and shaped by the morally indifferent forces of natural selection. It means that responsibility can't be equated with the notion of free will, if free will is conceived as autonomous choice utterly disconnected from any chain of cause and effect.

    Nancy Rothwell:
    We might even find that there is a biological basis for religion. Suppose we discovered that God "lived" in a particular part of the brain, and that religion was a biological function which had evolved to help us through difficult times.

    (Is that part of my brain defective? Is there a cure?)

    From the dictionary
    Main Entry: quod·li·bet
    Pronunciation: 'kwäd-l&-"bet
    Function: noun
    Etymology: Middle English, from Medieval Latin quodlibetum, from Latin quodlibet, neuter of quilibet any whatever, from qui who, what + libet it pleases, from libEre to please — more at WHO, LOVE
    1 : a philosophical or theological point proposed for disputation; also : a disputation on such a point
    2 : a whimsical combination of familiar melodies or texts

    Eat your words
    A Chicago chef is using edible papers and inks to print menus.
    He plans to take the idea further. "Just imagine going through a magazine and looking at an ad for pizza. You wonder what it tastes like, so you rip a page out and eat it," he told New Scientist magazine.

    Tuesday, February 08, 2005

    Love stories

    A "bouquet of writers" considers romantic books as Valentine's Day approaches.

    They offer samplings of poetry including Shakespeare and Neruda, of course. The cases are made for Possession, Love in the Time of Cholera, Rebecca — though none of these inspires in me the feeling of walking on air, that lump in one's throat, butterflies in one's stomach, weak in the knees.

    (No one mentions Mark Darcy.)

    I don't read many romances. I look at my shelves and I see the romance of ideas and travel, music and books, some great passions and idle flirtations. There's the closeness of families and between strangers, the fraternal love of humankind, and a few sexual escapades. But almost none about Love, the love this holiday devotes itself to.

    Here are a few titles — I have fond recollections of the reading of them, being swept up in their romance:

    The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, by Oscar Hijuelos: about; excerpt.

    An Equal Music, Vikram Seth: about; excerpt.

    Music and Silence, by Rose Tremain: review; excerpt.

    (Oh! I just noticed: they're all about music!)

    I have to mention Mad Love, by André Breton. Not a love story, but by turns meditation and manifesto of love, beauty, and everyday objects. The love of women, of children, and of Paris. The love that inspires one to say "I want you to be madly loved." (Maybe I include this book here only because it was a gift from a lover who was in love with making grand romantic gestures.)

    My very favourite love story, as much for its words and characters as for all the associations (of yet other loves) I have inextricably woven into it over the years: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. The romance of a place, an era, and ideologies. The soul and the body. Love in its unbearable lightness and infinite weight.

    Monday, February 07, 2005

    A self-indulgent mommy blog moment

    Helena spending the better part of Saturday morning walking backwards. Just because.

    Helena "teaching" Dancing Elmo how to use the computer mouse (but not very well).

    Helena repeating after me, "Okey-dokey, Pokey."

    Grocery shopping on Saturday. I hate it. J-F hates it. Helena wasn't very happy about it either. So we stopped to smell the flowers. Literally. We made our way to the florist department and Helena burrowed her nose into various blooms, breathing deep. She is the cutest little girl ever!

    Helena refusing to eat anything I prepared for her, unless it was served at a tea party, with portions given to each of the two dolls seated along with her at the low table. Endearing? Infuriating actually.

    My patience is running out. I used to be a very patient person. No longer. As mommyhood took hold, I gradually lost patience for everything in order to build up an endless store reserved for baby girl. That well is running dry.

    It's often noted that freelance work tends toward a feast or famine cycle. While I've been feasting on word counts: sleep, love and romance, physical health and well-being, my insignificant reading life, my let's go for a walk and grab a coffee life, my insignificant but ever so dearly missed curling up to watch a dumb movie and share a good bottle of wine life — they're all languishing like the near-dead ivy hanging in the corner of the apartment that I keep forgetting to water and which I should move out of the draft.

    Right. And the housework.

    My sister suggested she and I meet in New York for a weekend to take in the magic of Christo. I'd love to. But there are other things I'd love to, even more.

    Monday morning: will my weekend ever come?


    This year marking the centenary of her birth, and her novels being among the first "important" books I ever read, I have to say something about Ayn Rand. I just don't know what.

    From an introduction to Objectivism:

    One of the book salesmen asked me whether I could present the essence of my philosophy while standing on one foot. I did as follows:

    1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality
    2. Epistemology: Reason
    3. Ethics: Self-interest
    4. Politics: Capitalism

    If you want this translated into simple language, it would read: 1. "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed" or "Wishing won't make it so." 2. "You can't eat your cake and have it, too." 3. "Man is an end in himself." 4. "Give me liberty or give me death."

    Sounds reasonable enough when you put it like that.

    The problem?
    Perhaps Rand’s biggest error was the totalism of her philosophy. Having rightly concluded that the values of the free market were moral, she went on to make the sweeping assertion that those values were the only moral ones, and that all human relations must be based on the principles of "trade." Yet there is nothing unreasonable and nothing anti-market or anti-individualist to the belief that individualistic and market-based values need something to complement them.

    It's much clearer to me now as an adult, a woman, a mother. The romance has worn off.
    In her 1964 Playboy interview Rand flatly declared that it was "immoral" to place family ties and friendship above productive work; in her fiction, family life is depicted as a stifling, soul-killing, mainly feminine swamp.

    It’s noteworthy that in The Fountainhead, the heroes—Roark, newspaper magnate Gail Wynand, and Roark’s troubled lover, Dominique Francon—have all grown up motherless, while the arch-villain, critic Ellsworth Toohey, spent his childhood as his mother’s pet and the worthless Peter Keating, who relies on Roark to do his architecture work, has a grotesque caricature of a "selfless," smothering, tyrannical mother. The only Randian heroic couple to actually reproduce is the hero of Anthem and his girlfriend, who is pregnant at the end of the dystopian science fiction novelette; but they have the excuse of needing to breed a new race of free men, since the world around them has regressed to post-apocalyptic primitivism and slavery.

    In its pure form, Rand’s philosophy would work very well indeed if human beings were never helpless and dependent through no fault of their own. Thus, it’s hardly surprising that so many people become infatuated with Objectivism as teenagers and "grow out of it" later, when concerns of family, children, and old age—their own and their families’—make that fantasy seem more and more impossible.

    Was Rand a 20th-century woman? The New York Times:
    But these novels and the art described in them are actually far from revolutionary. They draw on the Romantic myth of the misunderstood artist and derive more properly from the mid-19th century than from the mid-20th.

    Nora Ephron on The Fountainhead, The New York Times Book Review (1968):
    Like most of my contemporaries, I first read The Fountainhead when I was 18 years old. I loved it. I too missed the point. I thought it was a book about a strong-willed architect...and his love life….I deliberately skipped over all the passages about egoism and altruism. And I spent the next year hoping I would meet a gaunt, orange-haired architect who would rape me. Or failing that, an architect who would rape me. Or failing that, an architect. I am certain that The Fountainhead did a great deal more for architects than Architectural Forum ever dreamed.

    Yes. I read The Fountainhead when I was 16, and I very much missed the point. I enjoyed Rand's novels for their plots and their characters. But I didn't get Objectivism out of my reading; in fact, my interpretations were pretty much opposite of what was intended. Is that more evidence of the paradox that was Ayn Rand, or just the sort of happy accident that befalls a teenage girl aspiring to big cities and Matters of Consequence and love? What was his name — that guy in high school who first rhapsodized about Rand to me? That fine young capitalist — what has become of him?

    Saturday, February 05, 2005

    Learning to read

    Ray Robertson, in a review of two books, offers a thoughtful discussion of the common claim that to have great writers, we need great readers.

    Robertson summarizes The Writer's Voice, by A ALvarez, the first section of which address how writers find their voice, the second how readers recognize singular voices:
    Like one's real friends, real writers don't sound quite like anyone else, could only be who they inimitably are. The reason so many people are so boring is because they all tend to sound the same. Likewise for so much of what masquerades as genuine literature.

    (The third section of the book is dismissed as a personal rant against drugs and an aesthetic dumbing-down of culture.)

    The other book reviewed is Michael Dirda's Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education. "Not particularly elegant, . . . but what it lacks in style it compensates for in missionary zeal and simple good taste."

    Both types of critics — deep thinkers or those deeply concerned with the written products of deep thinkers — are welcome, and both are necessary in the ongoing attempt to keep alive and even nurture what Nabokov called the reader's "capacity to wonder at trifles . . . these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life [that] are the highest forms of consciousness." The ideal reader might not be much more than an intelligent innocent, a wide-awake witness to life's ostensibly less sensational and less newsworthy events, but, as Nabokov reminds us, "it is [from] this childishly speculative state of mind, so different from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good."

    Thursday, February 03, 2005

    Henry Sugar

    Esref Armagan, blind from birth, paints uncannily realistic pictures. Holy crap!

    It raises big questions not only about how our brains construct mental images, but also about the role those images play in seeing. Do we build up mental images using just our eyes or do other senses contribute too? How much can congenitally blind people really understand about space and the layout of objects within it? How much "seeing" does a blind person actually do?

    We normally think of seeing as the taking in of objective reality through our eyes. But is it? How much of what we think of as seeing really comes from without, and how much from within? The visual cortex may have a much more important role than we realise in creating expectations for what we are about to see, says Pascual-Leone. "Seeing is only possible when you know what you're going to see," he says. Perhaps in Armagan the expectation part is operational, but there is simply no data coming in visually.

    Conventional wisdom suggests that a person can't have a "mind's eye" without ever having had vision. But Pascual-Leone thinks Armagan must have one. The researcher has long argued that you could arrive at the same mental picture via different senses. In fact he thinks we all do this all the time, integrating all the sensations of an object into our mental picture of it. "When we see a cup," he says, "we're also feeling with our mind's hand. Seeing is as much touching as it is seeing." But because vision is so overwhelming, we are unaware of that, he says. But in Armagan, significantly, that is not the case.

    (Link via Collision Detection, where it is pointed out that le bloguemonde has already widely commented on the story.)

    I'm reminded of Roald Dahl's The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (plot summary). It's the only Dahl story I ever read (sacrilege, I know), but it made a lasting impression on me, reinforced years later by certain aspects of Maugham's The Razor's Edge, and I return to them both often.

    My fascination:
    That we know so little about how the brain works.
    That the yogic tradition holds many secrets (or perhaps in the case of our painter, some more general sort of Eastern mysticism).
    That you can see without seeing.
    That we have access to something beyond our senses, the extent to which informed by our senses remains a mystery.
    That for all our greed and bitterness and cynicism, we are essentially good. (Although there's no evidence in the article of Armagan's use of his ability for a "greater good" — if art is not such a cause in itself — perhaps it is enough that it inspires science to examine his case.)

    Making it up

    A recent study published in Developmental Psychology found that 65% of 7-year-olds in the United States say they've had a pretend friend at some point in their short lives.

    This Slate article reminds us that even recently "imagined playmates made parents and psychological experts worry about children's mental stability. . . Contemporary psychologists risk domesticating a phenomenon that, for good as well as ill, thrives on at least some freedom from sober adult investigation."

    The article also asks what are all those other kids doing with their time? since "play" constitutes most of a child's daily life, and I wonder if it really makes all that much difference to a child's emotional life and the adult he or she becomes.

    I've noticed Helena starting to give her toys voices and personalities. At this stage, the dialogue isn't very elaborate:
    Toy: Hello Helena! Ca va?
    Helena: Veux-tu manger?
    Toy: No.
    Helena: No?

    And that's about the point to which has evolved my own ability to imbue puppets with life.

    I was never any good at making stuff up. (This may go a long way toward explaining why I will never write a Great Novel, or any novel.)

    I have a vague recollection: When we were 8, my best friend made an allusion to her imaginary friend. I remember feeling weirded out, and the "subject" never came up again.

    I know better than to discourage any companion Helena may conjure, and I'm not the creative force to inspire one either. (J-F often puts words in the cats' mouths, but we equate that more with subtitling — he didn't have imaginary friends either.) Whether Helena needs or wants one, and is able to bring one to "realize" one, remains to be seen.

    Blue frontiers

    Highlights of the 2005 Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival are now available. This year's theme is Dialogue sans frontières / Can we talk?

    Carlos Fuentes will be awarded the Blue Metropolis Grand Prix. (Last year's recipient was Paul Auster.)

    Wednesday, February 02, 2005

    Completely uninteresting

    I'm sick, but I'm temporarily enjoying the hazy effects of combined Neo Citran, cough syrup, throat lozenges, and sinus medication. I've lost my voice.

    I watched Charlie Rose interview Malcolm Gladwell this afternoon, and interestingly (to me) my opinion of Gladwell and his book Blink has slipped a little. It's important to raise questions, but he offers so few answers or directions for answers as to render the exercise almost pointless.

    When I was in high school, I often cut class to go for tea downtown. I developed a crush on one particular shopkeeper. I'd spend the early afternoon at his retro clothing shop and we'd talk about the books I was reading. Camus' L'Etranger was on the curriculum; I was going through a phase of W. Somerset Maugham then; he suggested I read Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh. From him I learned that "Interesting" is not an adequate response to "So what did you think?" That, and to look someone in the eye when they light your cigarette. This has served me far better than calculus (which I aced anyway).

    Back to Gladwell. He stresses the power of first impressions, for good or ill, and its relationship with the knowledge of experience, how we've informed our unconscious over the years. But he can't tell us how to know when our blink impression is right or wrong, how to know that it's well informed by our unconscious. He concludes essentially, at least in the Rose interview and various Web snippets, that this is pretty interesting and warrants further study.


    The blogosphere fails to inspire. But Rachel has inspired me to boycott the word "blogosphere." I will opt instead for il blogamundi and le bloguemonde. One can't imagine il blogamundi failing to inspire. (Le bloguemonde may be somewhat more pensive, however.)

    Helena has been practicing balancing on one foot.

    Tuesday, February 01, 2005

    You don't deke Margaret

    Margaret Atwood doesn't think of herself as a poet or novelist. Deep down, she sees herself as a goalie. "As in the world of literature, sometimes hockey's not pretty."

    Atwood offered a celebrity tip on Rick Mercer's Monday Report last night (video clip available temporarily).

    "As the late Robertson Davies once told me, 'Peggy, a good goalie anticipates play; a great goalie influences play.'"

    Might we say the same about our novelists?

    If you're suffering withdrawal, or are trying to understand someone who is suffering withdrawal, Rick Mercer also explains What the Hell Happened to Hockey and How to Save Our Season. "It turns out that people who live in the desert don't like watching hockey; they'd rather shoot rats at the dump."

    Hockey at the movies: quiz.