Monday, January 31, 2005

The immortality of ideas

Are new search engines revolutionizing the way we think?
Having all this information available at my fingerprints does more than help me find my notes faster. Yes, when I'm trying to track down an article I wrote many years ago, it's now much easier to retrieve. But the qualitative change lies elsewhere: in finding documents I've forgotten about altogether, documents that I didn't know I was looking for.

Steven Johnson witnesses the birth of new mental links:
Now, strictly speaking, who is responsible for that initial idea? Was it me or the software? It sounds like a facetious question, but I mean it seriously. Obviously, the computer wasn't conscious of the idea taking shape, and I supplied the conceptual glue... But I'm not at all confident I would have made the initial connection without the help of the software. The idea was a true collaboration, two very different kinds of intelligence playing off each other, one carbon-based, the other silicon.

No doubt some will say that these tools remind them of the way they use Google already, and the comparison is apt. . . But there's a fundamental difference between searching a universe of documents created by strangers and searching your own personal library. When you're freewheeling through ideas that you yourself have collated — particularly when you'd long ago forgotten about them — there's something about the experience that seems uncannily like freewheeling through the corridors of your own memory. It feels like thinking.

I say these tools are not helpful to such a revolutionary degree as much as we've become lazy and sloppy and maintaining our own neural connections. A minor example: when I'm plumbing an idea, I often turn to dictionaries and encyclopedias as a reminder of other "senses" and uses of words or objects. These word-processing tools can help facilitate our own cognitive exercises, but are our brains really so jammed to bursting that we will come to depend on machines to access them?

Google as a linguistic tool, far from perfect but democratizing the way linguists work:
Allowing anyone to conduct his own impromptu linguistic research, some linguists hope, will do more to popularise their notion of studying the intricacy and charm of language as it really exists, not as killjoy prescriptivists think it should be.

Beethoven is alive and well in America:
"In times of need, on great occasions when people have looked for something in art of a suitable magnitude to dignify or commemorate an occasion, the music of Beethoven is turned to over and over again. I think it's a feeling of universality. Beethoven's music is not about himself. His music is about everything that moves and lives and breathes and feels, and it has proven to be a great connector among humanity."

Beethoven, of course, is Beethoven — everyone knows him by reputation (and primarily the symphonies). Cynic that I am, as a teenager I decided he was overrated, populist. How little I knew.
"You know, one can go to museums and look at great paintings and great statues over and over again, and they never change. In music, the written piece is the same. Yet the interpretation of it is always, always different."

Ah, the Late Quartets. I was introduced to the Late Quartets by a friend when we were studying T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. I fell instantly into a deep emotional relationship with this music, ongoing and ever-evolving.

Happiness in balance: "one person's pay rise is another person's psychic loss."

Exhibit "Turks" at London's Royal Academy of Arts:
It gives "a unique insight into the extraordinary legacy of the Turks", is a welcome indication that Turks are now happy to accept a wider identity than that imposed by Ataturk...

"Although the Turks were not always the makers of these works of art," it admits, "they played an important role in the formation of new artistic traditions and presided over polyglot societies that were characterised by dynamic cultural exchanges" — which is to say, the show is a hodge-podge of stuff from many places, many tribes and many periods.

A crossroads.

To the stars:
I consider myself fortunate to be living at a time when humans are as close as they may ever come to seeing such a truly alien world with methane slush and new colors in the sky. That is probably what drew me to science in the first place. While literature has the power to lift us from the tedium of everyday existence, science at its best has the power to transport us to totally different worlds, both literal and metaphorical, to take us where our imaginations may never have otherwise traveled.

...The universe continues to surprise us in ways we can never anticipate. Ultimately it is far more interesting than anything that science fiction writers or artists may imagine. Life may imitate art, but ultimately it transcends it. Which is why we sometimes need to turn to the universe itself for inspiration.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Vocal experimentations

Helena's new favourite song is Bonne Fête — that's the Happy Birthday song, in French. She likes to mix it up a little: it's alternately bonne fête Mama, Papa, Helena, Elmo, Émile (whose recent birthday celebration at the daycare I'm guessing is the inspiration for this burst of song).

I was afraid for a while that Helena's love of music might not translate into ability. It took some practice I guess, but finally, yes, the girl can carry a tune.

When she steps up to the bathroom sink, she routinely sings the hand-washing song: "Savez-vous laver les mains, à la mode, à la mode..." I'm told the actual song goes "Savez-vous planter des chous..." ("Do you know how to plant cabbage" — whatever.)

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star is so last week, and Panie Janie (that's Frère Jacques in Polish — any attempt I make to sing it in French or English results in a vehement NO, NO, NNNOOOO!) has fallen by the wayside.

We are treated to occasional renditions of that They Might Be Giants number (thanks, Blue's Clues) and the Alphabet Song (no, she doesn't get all the letters right, not even close; and ya, I know it's the same tune as Twinkle, Twinkle).

But Bonne Fête is definitely the song of the moment.

She belts it out proud. Then she whispers it. She switches from a low and gravelly "big" voice to a falsetto.

Over and over.

Toddlers are weird.

(Lest you think I've not been reading or thinking much, I'm a quarter of the way through Don Quixote. Yay me!)

Friday, January 28, 2005

"Bach is boring"

The Diary of Witold Gombrowicz begins thus:

Adam Zagajewski has written a fascinating reflective essay on Witold Gombrowicz (link via the Literary Saloon.). He's surreal but not surreal, Polish but not Polish. Framed against the backdrop of Milosz, and other "Europeans."

For Gombrowicz — with his brilliant sense of what he himself called the "interpersonal church," which he defined as the ongoing psychological shaping of people in interactions and in their behavior toward one another — could potentially have been an invaluable witness to, and commentator on, the historical catastrophe of the last century. Yet fate wished otherwise, and this potential witness found himself transported, irony of ironies, to ahistorical Argentina, right at the last moment before the outbreak of war, by chance in the form of an ocean cruise on the Boleslaw Chrobry. In his Diary (1953­66), Gombrowicz himself mounted a vigorous defense against recurring accusations that he had not seen history in action and therefore did not know what that grim history was like; he argued that those who had witnessed the horror were mostly unable to understand it and even less able to express it. He defended himself wisely and well...

This is strange: Why would a novelist have so many opinions? Wouldn't this multiplicity of views and convictions be more fitting for a philosopher of culture?

Zagajewski decides that Gombrowicz is the perfect Modernist.

In a certain sense, Gombrowicz was more than a writer. With his books he influenced to some degree the shape of Polishness — too little, it's true, as any observer of political life in the new Poland can see. A strange adventure befell him. For in essence Gombrowicz belonged — or rather, was in danger of belonging — to the family of those exquisite avant-garde prose writers and playwrights who are praised and esteemed yet whom hardly anyone actually reads, aside from conscientious critics and juries of literary prizes, and a handful of loyal fans.

It's time for me to reread the Diary.

I'm thumbing through my copy (well, the first two volumes anyway) and realizing that of all the books I own, this work has the most marginalia and underlinings, the most corners folded down. Why I found certain passages on, for example, existentialism, significant is mystifying to me now.


  • Why do you, atheists, deify ideas? Why don't you deify people?
  • The limits of their personality are exactly "from one table to the next."
  • Bach is boring! Objective. Abstract. Monotonous. Mathematical. Sublime. Cosmic. Cubic. Bach is boring!

Gems. I shall start again at the beginning.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Never again

We say it. Yet there is still Hell on Earth.

Exhibition: Private Tolkatchev at the Gates of Hell.

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. (Some facts.)

Photo essay.

I fully expected to be bombarded with images of horror today. I was not. Numerous blogs for weeks already have been preparing for a "blogburst" of historical information and essays to commemorate the occasion and help instill the importance of what transpired on the ever-growing numbers of people intent on forgetting.

As my afternoon is winding down, I realize that although there has been less awareness and less coverage of this event than I assumed there would be, I have done nothing.

Some eloquent recollections of a visit to Auschwitz here.

Reminder of our civic responsibilities: "A heroic life is made up of extraordinary moments lived in the context of daily existence. . . . It is my call as an artist not to forget, but instead to create art in the spirit of Yevgeny Khaldei that marks the moments of our time."

Some historical perspective, quoting "But there is another kind of evil that we must fear the most, and that is the indifference of good men."

I visited Auschwitz on a beautiful, sunny day after a morning rain. What struck me was how "pretty" it was — tree-lined walkways, brick dwellings — clean and orderly. For a moment I could see what the Red Cross inspectors had seen.

In that moment is the knowledge that I too can be blinded.

Santayana's reminder is written on the wall of the visitors' centre at Auschwitz: "Those who will not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

The Trees are Silent, by Halina Birenbaum

The trees have seen and heard a lot
Have imbibed and covered much
But even when rustling
They remain silent

They would not tell us about
That what they have witnessed

They tell us
Neither about the wonders
That happened in their shadows
Nor the horrors

They climb toward light
Like we they are thirsty of sun
Dye in darkness
Wither of atrocities

And do keep silent — always remain silent

With their shade of secret they shroud
Wipe out equally well the traces of
Love and crime

... And in Auschwitz too
The trees grew and climbed to the sky
Imbibing into themselves
The screams the fire the smoke

And they did stubbornly keep silent

And I
When being marched amongst them
Found in them signals of life
The proof of existence
That was forbidden to me

I stared at the trees
Breathing in their fresh smell mixed
With the smell of burnt human beings

With my eyes I passed on them
My desires
My cry for life
For the faith
That life be
Also allowed to me

I prayed that the traces be preserved
Of my existence once in this world...

Many like me confessed to the trees
Begged for remembrance
Wanted to climb up to their tops
To fly away

Traces of those have vanished
Have been blown away

The trees saw and heard all these
But in their habit
Kept growing and getting green
And they kept silence

They did not lament over human suffering
Perhaps they even laughed at it?

Became drunk with the stench of burned people
With a diabolic spell got bewitched?
And were turned into something different
Than had been until then?

The trees have perpetually been silent

To me, the little one, it was granted to survive
In order to tell
About the German Nazi monsters
About their victims and the witness-trees

About trees' keeping silent
In the face of every sight
Of every calamity

I did love and still do love trees
To their shades I confide
My pain my longing my daydreams

In their rustle I unite
With my loved ones
Doomed and perished

And with the world
That once had existed
but has been destroyed
And I within it — We

In the solemn silence of the trees
Their inveterate mysterious keeping silent
THEN there was hope

And today
A consolation

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Make it stop!

The daycare called Monday to let me know Helena had a rash. I was pretty sure it was the strawberry jam we had for breakfast. Tuesday morning was business as usual, but the daycare sent her home when they saw the rash was still there. Helena's not to return until she has doctor's certificate of clearance.

(We saw the doctor this morning. The "rash" is "nothing" — dry skin reacting to extreme cold. For those keeping track, she's 36 inches and 17 kilos. Yes, I know I'm mixing metric with imperial.)

I am so out of practice. The girl never stops. This is not the behaviour of a sick toddler (runny nose notwithstanding). Weekends have their own rhythm of laziness and groceries and visits. Right now, I'm exhausted.

Of course yesterday, I was to start a new work project. Ha ha.

Meanwhile, my wrists are on fire. The thing is, I don't believe in carpal tunnel syndrome. I thinks it's the most bogus disease ever. If I know you and I've actually sympathized with you over your debilitating condition — I was lying. Rest assured the gods have avenged you. I am afflicted. I am unable to turn faucets, open jars, squeeze sponges, or steer strollers. Every time I lift Helena or that brick called Don Quixote, I swear. Profusely.

Even that damn oversized coffee mug is taunting me — I want you, but the having of you pains me.

Hanging out with Helena does put a smile on my face. She says "ludicrous" and "stoopeed" and "that'snotsobad." When she puts her doll down for a nap, she gives her doll a doll. Since our trip to the Biodome, she still mutters about "manger les doigts" — J-F told her the piranha would eat her fingers, but it seems anything her fingertips graze is worth worrying about.

And the tea parties: "Viens, mes amis!" Les amis!

But exhausting.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Presidential lines contaminated

Human embryonic stem cell (HESC) research sees another setback:

A Californian team reported that the "presidential" lines, from which American researchers are attempting to derive nerve, islet and other types of stem cells to repair a damaged body, have been contaminated with a non-human molecule that makes them unsafe to use in patients.

They contain a foreign substance, called N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc), even though human cells are genetically unable to make it.

Prof Austin Smith, Director of the Institute for Stem Cell Research, University of Edinburgh, said: "This paper illustrates why existing cells are of limited utility and why we need to derive new human embryonic stem cell lines under better defined conditions."

The full version of the paper is to appear in Nature Medicine; a PDF file is currently available. It concludes:
None of these approaches guarantees the complete elimination of Neu5Gc (or any other unknown animal antigen or pathogen) from existing cultures. Therefore it would seem safest to start over again with newly derived HESC that have never been exposed to any animal products conatining Neu5Gc (and ideally, only ever exposed to serum from the intended transplant recipient). The current regulatory climate in the United States precludes this type of approach, when using federal grant dollars.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Film, opera, theatre

Game 6, Don DeLillo's first screenplay, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival:

Theatre in New York seems to exist in a world of its own with a unique community, characters, and lifestyle. (During the 1980s, this was even more the case, far from the corporate Times Square of today.) For New Yorkers, the universes of theatre and sports have always had a particular relevance, with a day-to-day effect on people's lives and a significance that gives them allegorical weight.

It's a day in the life of a playwright who skips opening night to see the historic 1986 World Series. Reminds me of the opening scenes of Underworld. See Speed of Life for some background and DeLillo-inspired art.

Elvis Costello will create an opera based on songs written by Hans Christian Andersen for Jenny Lind. The Secret Arias is scheduled to be performed in 2006.

Helena today begins "theatre" classes. Last term's "music" classes having been deemed a success, the daycare continues to expand their artistic horizons. I'm dreading the end-of-term recital — I picture a dozen 2-year-olds milling about, waiting for Godot, or someone, all wearing mismatched shoes.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

The age of reason

The Toddler
Today marks the dawn of a new era in toddlerhood. At age 26 months and 3 days, Helena asked "Pourquoi?" Never mind that the answer was "Because mommy's tired."

This word heralds the advent of curiosity, acknowledges the existence of something outside oneself, recognizes free will and that others also have the capacity to use it. The questioning in itself implies that things happen for a reason.

Her Aunt
My sister managed to escape the police state that is her neighbourhood this weekend, flee the country even, to pay us a visit. She came bearing books for everyone! (We love her dearly.)

We had a weekend full of toddler-sponsored tea parties, leisurely meals, red wine, and penguins. We even discussed politics, cuz we're family and we enjoy that sort of thing.

(We — that is, I — are stupefied by America's lack of an "official opposition" such as in Canada to provide checks and balances on the governing party. Certainly the media does not fulfill this task.)

The Working Class
The other day I came across an article, The Classics in the Slums, on working-class autodidacts, who "read the classics in part because contemporary literature was too expensive":

"Every miner has a hobby," explained one Welsh collier. "It may be a reaction from physical strain. The miner works in a dark, strange world. He comes up into light. It is a new world. It is stimulating. He wants to do something. . . . Think what reading means to an active mind that is locked away in the dark for hours every day!"

We are most of these days locked away in the dark for hours in our office cubicles. Of course, the social plight of past centuries was a bit darker. Just because the life of the mind was made somewhat rich for some, it's not to obscure the awfulness of general daily conditions. Still, it's good to be reminded that literature and opera — "the finer things" — are not always the domain of the wealthy and "educated."

...a miller in sixteenth-century Italy who acquired and read (with a highly independent mind) a vernacular Bible, Boccaccio's Decameron, travel books, perhaps even the Qur'an. ...Vermont farmers stocking their home libraries with Homer, Virgil, Cicero, Dr. Johnson, Walter Scott, Oliver Goldsmith, Laurence Sterne, and John Locke. ...workingmen who haunted second-hand bookstalls along the Seine, devouring Châteaubriand, Alexandre Dumas, Goethe, Shakespeare, and the philosophes of the Enlightenment. Americans discussing Milton, Spenser, Homer, Aeschylus, Longfellow, Dryden, Pope, Browning, Pindar, and Sappho, as well as Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Impressive networks of workers' libraries were set up not just by Welsh colliers, but also by Colorado miners, the Social Democratic Party in imperial Germany, trade unions in interwar Poland, study circles in Sweden, the Histadrut labor federation in mandatory Palestine, and anarchists in pre-Franco Spain. ...cigar makers listen to the classics read aloud while they work — a Cuban tradition, but also practiced in many other parts of the world. Everywhere we look, in a diversity of cultures and historical periods, we find "common" readers tackling remarkably challenging literature.

I'm reminded of Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge. Larry goes off to work in the mines and befriends a Polish brute, a man who contrary to everyone's expectations — Larry's, the narrator's, and ours — is well read and seems to know a little something about the path to enlightenment. I wonder if Maugham knew this sort of autodidact to occur more often in life than generally thought.

"Be not afraid of greatness!"

In anticipation of spring. Posted by Hello

Friday, January 21, 2005

La vie en verte

Alberto Manguel in the new issue of Geist expands the proposition that nations might be defined or understood through their emblematic children’s books:

Every civilization, even the most tyrannical, has its defining book, a legend or fairy tale that in times of conflict becomes cautionary. For Alexander’s Greece it was the Iliad, for the German Reich, the Götterdämmerung of the old sagas, via Wagner, for Thatcherite Britain, the nostalgic epics of Tolkien. It may be that for America today, that book is The Wizard of Oz.

(Link via Bookninja.)

Thursday, January 20, 2005


Ways in which Rachel Hartman's Amy Unbounded: Belondweg Blossoming is superior to Edith Grossman's translation of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote in hardcover:

It slips into a purse or shopping bag for easy transport.

In a pinch you can even curl it up and jam it into your coat pocket.

Cool guys scope you out on the metro cuz you're reading a "graphic novel."

You could "perform" excerpts of Don Quixote to great effect for a toddler audience, but it's much easier to flip open to any page of Amy and point at the pictures to make a toddler beam.

As an added bonus it provides the toddler a study of facial expression, and inspires the use of funny voices.


A manageable 201 pages of cartoon text versus 940 pages of dense prose.

There's a map!

You never find yourself questioning the integrity of the translation.

Women! Strong, smart, defiant ones bonding in the kitchen and banded together in sisterhood!

If you have to leave off for a time, and return only to discover you've lost your place, the pictures are a handy guide to setting you back on course.

Would you rather identify with a 9-year-old girl who's research assistant to a dragon or some crazy-ass knight charging windmills?

Well, that last one's a toughie, but note the official seal on the Amy cover: "Approved For Everyday Use." I'm not sure Don Quixote would qualify.

Amy of Eddybrook. © Rachel Hartman. Posted by Hello

I'm in awe that such depth of character can be revealed in a comic. Every individual in Amy's world has a story, relatively straightforward but with vast implications. The simplicity of the drawing and the telling helps lay bare the complexity of the relationships of all involved. The epic of Amy that summer is the dawning of her awareness.

Linda Medley's introduction compares Amy to Jo March, spirited and independent, on the verge of growing up. Amy's a really sweet and smart kid, and she's figuring stuff out. Boys, social dynamics in general, the place of women in this fictional medieval society, dragons. I laughed out loud plenty. (I can't believe I cried too.)

It's comedy and tragedy. Like real life, there are no real beginnings or endings. Amy is the 9-year-old girl inside all of us, looking at the world with fresh eyes and seeing it very clearly.

Regarding the author, according to one source:
"For two years she did a comic strip called "Ellen of Troy" and enjoyed it so much that she decided to forgo a million-dollar career in Comparative Literature in favor of living in her grandma's attic and drawing comics."


Interview with the author.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005


Anything nice I said about Helena recently, I take it back. The scamp woke up at 3 (!) and refused to go back to sleep. I am not happy about this development.

Further to yesterday's thoughts on the blending of the imaginary into the real world, you may wish to sample some other opinions. One poster indicated a paper in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. Abstract:
A number of emerging technologies including virtual reality, simulation rides, video conferencing, home theater, and high definition television are designed to provide media users with an illusion that a mediated experience is not mediated, a perception defined here as presence. Traditional media such as the telephone, radio, television, film, and many others offer a lesser degree of presence as well. This article examines the key concept of presence. It begins by noting practical and theoretical reasons for studying this concept. Six conceptualizations of presence found in a diverse set of literatures are identified and a detailed explication of the concept that incorporates these conceptualizations is presented. Existing research and speculation about the factors that encourage or discourage a sense of presence in media users as well as the physiological and psychological effects of presence are then outlined. Finally, suggestions concerning future systematic research about presence are presented.

Although the paper identifies and details many of the components of the immersive experience, the effects are only now making themselves known, and there is much room for study.

Although the official winners of the 2004 Best of Blog Awards have yet to be announced, it's a foregone conlusion, I'd say, that I will not be listed among them. I was proud of my steady middle-of-the-pack standing, but my grasp on that was slowly released. Heck, in the final days, even I voted for someone else.

The world, of course, is full of Salieris, and I am one of them.

"Mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you!"

Hockey books

Don Gillmor in the new issue of The Walrus opines on the literary representation of our national game:

Hockey is our mythic game, as almost every hockey book states somewhere. It sings in our blood. Yet, unlike boxing or baseball, it has not produced a mythic literature.

There is great hockey writing, but much of it is in the short form. Mordecai Richler, Roy MacGregor (who has also written a novel and several books on hockey), Rick Salutin, and others have all written wonderfully about the game. . . Parts of the game are wonderfully captured, but the whole is seldom embraced, and epic treatment gives way to mere commentary. There are hundreds of books, many of them good, but only a few have entered the public imagination, have translated the game — its grandeur and meanness and poetry — into something lasting.

Roch Carrier's The Hockey Sweater is undeniably a classic. I read Roy MacGregor's The Last Season and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's proof of the depth of material that exists in a player's character, the drama of his career.

I can't say I've read many books about sports. I've never particularly enjoyed sports, as participant or spectator. I wouldn't ordinarily choose to read about them — fiction or nonfiction.

Over the years I've learned to appreciate hockey (I'm a hopeless cause for ever understanding baseball). I understand the rules. There's a simplicity and elegance to the game (though not always played elegantly). I'm familiar with its history, its highlights, its dynamics. I think I get it.

I'm in no position to compare the literary legacies of hockey and baseball. That said, the opening pages of Don DeLillo's Underworld are among the most compelling words written in English in the last century. And it's about baseball — the 1951 Giants–Dodgers pennant game.

"That’s the thing about baseball, Cotter. You do what they did before you. That’s the connection you make. There’s a whole long line. A man takes his kid to a game and thirty years later this is what they talk about when the poor old mutt’s wasting away in the hospital."

Hockey-inspired literature doesn't even come close. As Gillmor writes:

Books on hockey are often about innocence, that is, a time in the writer's childhood when the game represented something; or they are about decline, i.e., the present. Mordecai Richler wrote about both in his 1980 essay "The Fall of the Montreal Canadiens," which measured the thrilling days of Béliveau and "Boom Boom" Geoffrion against the failure and dullness of the 1980 version of the team and his own waning interest in hockey. Nostalgia, despite its inherent distortions, has always been a necessary commodity in hockey literature because of the game's endless slide. Our own era (whatever that era is) is fractured and listless, but you should have seen it way back when.

Maybe that's the difference: Baseball knows it's a great game. Hockey, like the nation it symbolizes, looks backward, floundering for a sense of self.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005


Helena has been Super Amazing Toddler the last little while. (Except for the part where she wakes up at 5:10. Every. Effing. Morning.) She's well behaved, attentive, patient, affectionate, funny, and really funny — all round sweetness.

At daycare, she's Little Miss Sociable. When I picked her up yesterday, she was decked out in a velvety shawl, one glove, and glittery heels. (How'd she get so girly?) She'd been hosting a tea party all day in the corner; her playmates would come and go as they pleased, while Helena served tea, coffee, juice, your choice.

Helena says hello to all the other parents. She waves or offers her hand in greeting. They all stop to chat with her. In the cloakroom, to their little snowpants-challenged terrors they point out Helena, good-natured, cooperative, and patient. (She can be a handful to dress in the morning, but at the end of the day she seems bemused that anyone would put up such a fuss.)

Helena certainly knows something about "dealing" with people. Something skipped a generation.

Her eye is healing, but she still looks like she's been in a fight. (We know better.)

Scrappy. Posted by Hello

We're reading Bootsie Barker Bites, illustrated by Peggy Rathmann. Although it's recommended for ages 4—8, it's perfect read-aloud material.

This book, a delight. The narrator — a five year-old would-be scientist — is tortured by Bootsie, who keeps claiming she is a dinosaur and will eat the narrator. Finally, our heroine thinks of a new game: paleontology. Dinosaur-Bootsie is frightened, and runs away, hopefully never to return.

I love how unapologetic it is. You don't have to play with kids you don't like. You don't have to understand where they're coming from. You don't have to learn that they are human and really nice on the inside. What you have to do is stand up for yourself.

Helena loves it. She says "Bootsie" with a charming French accent. My only concern is that Helena seems to identify more with Bootsie than with the intended protagonist, the terrorized narrator. (Our fault, I guess, for encouraging Horrible Noisy All-Devouring Monster games.)

The pictures of Bootsie's out-of-control menace for the time being elicit puzzlement from Helena. How to explain that it's not "sad," and it's more complicated than "angry"?

This book is recommended for helping youngsters resolve conflicts and deal with bullies. I don't believe Helena will have issues on either side of that coin. Regardless, Bootsie Barker is lots of fun.


The inability to distinguish between real-life and game-play, or the capability to immerse oneself in an alternate reality?

From Collision Detection:
Social critics have lambasted fantasy games and video games for making kids "unable to tell the difference between a game and reality." I've always thought that is transparently untrue. Indeed, that attitude seems less like an indictment of the brains of gamers than the brains of the critics: The latter are clearly so unaccustomed to using their imaginations in vivid ways that they immediately regard anything fantastical as being too much for the brain to handle.

A Wired article reports the phenomenon:

The difficulty of separating real-life consciousness from that of game playing: "It's so common, in fact, that game publishers might want to consider warning their customers that they may soon be unable to tell the difference between the game and reality. "

"The phenomenon of having difficulty defining reality after hours in front of the screen isn't at all limited to games." The article mentions software programs, but the argument could be made for time surfing or chatting.

Previous related thoughts on immersion, suspending disbelief, and a child's perception. (Yes, they're related.)

I don't think people experience this "sensory overlap" when they walk away from a movie. Is it because movie is limited in time, or is it the nature of the medium that helps us keep our distance? As television technology evolves, will the experience become more immersive at the level of consciousness?

Books. It happens with books. I think it happened for Don Quixote.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Happy birthday, Don Quixote


William Faulkner read it every year. Former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez peruses it daily. One expert recommends you read it three times before you die, while another envies those who haven't touched it - yet.

The book is interpreted as both a slapstick farce and an opus of great philosophical and aesthetic worth; it has never been clear if Cervantes was intending to do no more than provide amusement for himself and his contemporaries, or if he was aiming to craft a masterpiece. . . Cervantes' intentions were unimportant.

In praise of Sancho Panza:
One legacy of Don Quixote is that of the straight-man sidekick.

Douglas Glover's book-length essay on fiction, The Enamoured Knight, is reviewed in The Globe and Mail. Both the review and the book focus on Don Quixote.

Lionel Trilling claims "all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote," and Milan Kundera goes so far as to cite Cervantes and Descartes as the parents of the modern era. Yet Glover is quick to point out that Don Quixote is both the first novel — 2005 marks its 400th anniversary — and an anti-novel, a "book against books" (the old don is driven mad by reading too many books on knight errantry).

"cascading points of view"
"inset stories"
"parallel action"
"shadow books"
"character gradation"
"a set-piece version of the whole novel in a different key"
"the internal relativity machine of the nested narrators"
"novel thought"

Because of Don Quixote's fragmented structure, "flickering" narration and bookish self-consciousness, Glover sees it as not simply the first novel, but also the first successfully experimental novel, the first, for lack of a better word, postmodern novel. He finds this paradoxical parentage radically underappreciated.

Miguel de Cervantes.

 Posted by Hello
(I was awed by the sight of windmills on the road to Tarifa. I've not yet read Don Quixote, never seen a movie or musical version, but Carter USM's (that's Unstoppable Sex Machine for all you unhip people) raw rendition of The Impossible Dream served as an anthem of sorts for a couple years.)


I woke up this morning with a profound and inexplicable sense of sadness. I tend not to have such "instincts" or "hunches" and readily discount phenomena that others might describe as "just a feeling." So it's deeply troubling to me when I can't shake it.

As if the parallel me in a parallel universe awoke without this feeling. Something's transpired that affects this-world me only indirectly (a missed opportunity?), but I feel that parallel me from this point will live more happily than I. We've passed a juncture.

Crazy. But I can't shake it.


Philip Glass's Symphony No. 7, subtitled "A Toltec Symphony," premieres Thursday in Washington DC. The Washington Post reviews his career to date.

I love Philip Glass. I'm interested to learn he chose to major in mathematics and philosophy, like I did (though my choice didn't stick). Knowing this helps describe how his music works, or how I hear it.

"I would explain the difference between the use of Western and Indian music in the following way: In Western music we divide time — as if you were to take a length of time and slice it the way you slice a loaf of bread. In Indian music (and all the non-Western music with which I'm familiar), you take small units, or 'beats,' and string them together to make up larger time values."

The flutist Ransom Wilson on "Einstein on the Beach":

"As I listened to that five-hour performance, I experienced an amazing transformation. At first I was bored — very bored. The music seemed to have no direction, almost giving the impression of a gigantic phonograph with a stuck needle. . . . Then, with no conscious awareness, I crossed a threshold and found that the music was touching me, carrying me with it. I began to perceive within it a whole world where change happens so slowly and carefully that each new harmony or rhythmic addition or subtraction seemed monumental."

To which I have nothing to add.


So here's the big question: if children who don't even go to school learn so easily, why do children who go to school seem to have such a hard time? Why can children solve problems that challenge computers but stumble on a third-grade reading test?

One answer to the big question is that schools don't teach the same way children learn.

The problem for many children in elementary school may not be that they're not smart enough but that they're not stupid enough. They haven't yet been able to make reading and writing transparent and automatic.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Alternative reading

Michel Basilières finally has a new column up at Maisonneuve, this one on Fritz Leiber, of whom I've never heard.

I don't entirely trust Basilières as my guide into SF, but he manages to drop a few nuggets worth cracking. As an aside, he writes:
The expression "virtual reality" entered our language not via computers and cyber geeks, but with the translation into English of Antonin Artaud's masterpiece, The Theatre and Its Double. Artaud was one of my favourite kinds of writers: the insane French intellectual. He believed a play was not successful unless it affected the audience so profoundly that spectators were physically altered by the experience. He said going to the theatre should be like going to the dentist: you leave physically changed.

He also traces the evolution of science fiction by decade.

Basilières' asides are far more provacative than anything he has to say on his central topic. It's what makes me want to trust him, even when his column subjects are obscure, poorly informed, or poorly conveyed.

File under...

You are .ogg Even though many people consider you cool and happening, a lot still find that you're a bit too weird to hang out with.
Which File Extension are You?

I don't even know what .ogg is...
(From Maggie.)

Friday, January 14, 2005

Train of thought

Way back when we were embarking a train journey, we bought a book for Helena, hoping to keep her fascinated and occupied. About a train! (It was actually J-F who picked it out, but he can't have read it or he would've mocked its strong environmental message.)

Oi! Get off our Train, by John Burningham.

Helena had no interest in this book until very recently. It's a mystery to me what draws her to any particular book and how her attachment to it then borders on obsessive to the exclusion of all else, at least temporarily.

We've only read the story in its entirety a couple of times. Helena gets stuck on page 5. The 2-page spread closes in on our hero's toy train as it churns to life. In the background, but taking up a lot of space, is the boy's bedside table, fronted with a cabinet door.

Helena needs to open that door.

She reaches into the page, grasping about for the knob. She knocks. She tries my keys, as if by this magic object she can shrink herself down to step through the looking glass, as it were, to unlock the mysteries that lie therein. Occasionally she looks around to the next page, but on her face is always disappointment, as if she's been cheated.

(I ended up housebound the other day, as I couldn't find my keys. They were last seen being used by Helena to unlock the door to her space capsule underneath the kitchen sink.)

I find this to be odd behaviour, but I can only assume it to be a common manifestation of a child's imagination in a particular phase of cognitive development, grappling with spatial perception, switching between 2 dimensions and 3, and the concept of representation.

Similarly, Helena shares her milk and cookies with the creatures of Jamberry, flicks bugs away from Kitten, and pets and kisses all her book friends.

It's as if she slips into another realm between the pages, literally being "lost in a good book."

That's a neat trick. Are we born with the ability to cross over, to give ourselves over, to suspend disbelief? Do we lose it (in varying degrees, from individual to individual) as we gain our footing in the material world?

I recently quoted psychologist Alison Gopnik as saying:
I believe, but cannot prove, that babies and young children are actually more conscious, more vividly aware of their external world and internal life, than adults are.

I also believe this, not as a psychologist, but as my child's observer. She is an empty and completely open vessel for whom time stretches in all directions, for whom space is an ongoing experiment. Too, she taps an emotional dimension, natural empath, pure of heart.

(See Gopnik's full answer to the question "What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?")

I think that, for babies, every day is first love in Paris. Every wobbly step is skydiving, every game of hide and seek is Einstein in 1905.

(Believe it or not, what follows is connected.)

Salon discusses Martin Gladewell's book Blink:

At the heart of the book is a feature of human psychology that Gladwell calls "rapid cognition" — the ability of our brains to make snap decisions in the background, without our ever really consciously knowing about them.

This itself is a surprising idea; we're not aware, Gladwell says, how much work our brains do for us in secret — how they're always sizing things up, extracting meaning out of the tiniest details, constantly making sense of the world, even when we think we're not paying attention. What's more, as a culture we're trained to discount such rapid cognition in favor of deeper thinking and greater analysis. First impressions are never thought to be as reliable as lifelong studies.

Gladwell wants us to revisit the first impression. "The first task of 'Blink,'" he writes, "is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately." Listening to our snap judgments can be tricky business, however, and Gladwell documents the many ways in which our "internal computers" can be "thrown off, distracted, and disabled."

An exchange with the author.

The Implicit Association Test.
It is well known that people don't always 'speak their minds', and it is suspected that people don't always 'know their minds'. Understanding such divergences is important to scientific psychology.

I took a few of the tests. Although some of the results sit a little uncomfortably, they're not terribly surprising.

I believe children know more and are far wiser than we will ever give them credit. Though they may have less information, their's is a clean, unfettered path to knowing their minds and tapping the essential.

The moral nature of books

The current issue of World Literature Today includes responses to Marc Aronson's article "Does Children's Literature Matter?" which in view of Helena's ever-changing relationship with books provoked some thoughts. Here's a sampling of the letters:

While Aronson goes on to argue that authors have a responsibility to children to get social and historical matters right, and correctly so, it strikes me as more important that a work be, in that most elusive sense of the word, true . . . How is the author’s "responsibility to children" any different than his responsibility to adults?

* * * * * * * * * *

If writers are "the engineers of souls," as Stalin said, then they’d better build morally good, politically correct books — or else. We have zero tolerance for badly built planes. Conversely, if we believe in the freedom of writers as artists, then the moral nature of their books (whether for children or adults) and the political lessons they imply are quite separate from their value: what counts is whether they’re good literature. The jury’s out on whether reading good literature makes us — or our children — better people.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Progress and setbacks

Of yesterday's list, I can with confidence say I have completed five and a half tasks (of 15). Although, I'm hesitant to consider sleep crossed off that list because I feel I have to do a little more of that. Also, even though I did clean the cat litter yesterday — in fact it was the first task I tackled — I did so again today, and likely will again tomorrow. Likewise the whole coffee/blogging/centering oneself thing. Somehow, it never ends.

Long story short: I've accomplished absolutely nothing of substance.

Today I bought books. None of the books I bought were on my list of books to buy.

Also, I started reading Amy Unbounded: Belondweg Blossoming. I felt very cool to be riding the metro reading my comic (can I say that? is that the PC terminology?). I even noticed two very young (relative to me) and cool (also relative to me) boys — separate instances — reading graphic novels and eyeing me, wondering what comic I was reading, thinking I was cool. Well, not uncool.

It was the kind of leisurely stupid day for which I almost felt guilty to be sending Helena to daycare.

Received phonecall of warning that Helena had been poked in the eye with foreign object at daycare. This was not a medical emergency, as it turned out, merely a warning that she looked hideous.

It turns out that her eyeball was not skewered, but her lower lid is severely scratched. Likely culprit: puzzle piece. They made us sign waivers.

We passed a couple in the street on the way to the car. The scarved woman was on her knees in the snow, sobbing. It took a second for me to realize we were just outside the immigration hearings site. Helena showed genuine concern on her face — "Elle pleure." (Are all children natural empaths?)

Other people have difficult lives.

The Nothing Generation

Dorota Masłowska is the voice of Poland's Nothing Generation, in translator Benjamin Paloff's words:
...all the twentysomethings who scarcely remember the lean years before 1989, when Central Europe shed Communism, which means that they have little basis for comparison with the rapid economic change, the influx of foreign goods and pop-kitschy images, the violent social stratification, and the all-too-obvious political corruption that shape their world at the beginning of a new millennium. Materialism, greed, vanity, and vulgarity seem to pervade their society, and any suggestion that life is better than it used to be fails to resonate with their own life experience. The argument that Poland is better off despite its broad socioeconomic upheavals, after all, sounds too much like a sales pitch, and this generation is none too fond of the product.

Masłowska's novel Snow White and Russian Red is excerpted at Worlds without Borders. It doesn't stop for air. "Masłowska’s prose jumps brilliantly between linguistic registers, combining slang, street lingo, obscenity, and artificially formal speech in a single frenetic utterance."

It depicts something very ugly, to me. The form matches its content in this respect: it has all the angry energy and disillusionment of youth, with only bleak visions and illogical schemes for the future. Masłowska is a writing sensation at the tender age of 19. Post-Communist Poland is reduced to a state of infancy. This excerpt reads like a temper tantrum of frustration.

Paloff frames Masłowska's place in literature within Poland's vast tradition of struggling for selfhood:
Despite the sunny simplifications of Western observers, for many Poles 1989 did not represent a definitive break with their country’s unlucky legacy of partition, invasion, occupation, and oppression. Rather, with the emergence of social ills like drug addiction, high unemployment, and homelessness, problems that for all their high talk most Western governments have barely even begun to address productively, some Poles have come to see the difficulty of the post-Communist era as just the latest in the long series of blunt traumas History has dealt them. What sets this period of Polish history apart is that, for the first time, much of the world is grappling with the same identity crisis. The national discourses that have come to the fore with the rise of globalization — particularly the question of how to sustain cultural identities against foreign hegemony, whether military or corporate — have been a major concern for Polish thinkers since well before Poland’s Third Partition in 1795, when the country disappeared from the map of Europe. In this respect, instead of Poland going global, perhaps the world has increasingly grown to resemble Poland.

History has somehow wronged us all, though maybe Poland a little bit longer. We are each of us, individuals and nations, misunderstood and banging up against walls trying to be heard.

"One of the important ideas that Masłowska’s novel successfully conveys is that this struggle for a cultural identity is always, first and foremost, a struggle with oneself."

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


I've been working like a dog. My mind is elswehere, and my heart isn't in anything.

(Did you know? Octopuses have 3 hearts.)

Things I've neglected to do lately, in no particular order, and should do today (or tomorrow — soon, anyway):

1. Have coffee, blog some (by way of this list), centre myself. Maybe I'll even smoke a cigarette.
2. Write up some invoices.
3. Apply for a real job. (Though imaginary will do if the hours are steady and the pay's alright.)
4. Clear up some bills.
5. Buy some groceries so that Helena has more to eat than applesauce and yogourt. Like she cares.
6. Sleep (just a little).
7. Teach (train?) Helena to NOT repeatedly plug and unplug the Christmas tree lights.
8. Undress and dispose of the the Christmas tree. (Undress the tree.)
9. Find a copy of Don Quixote so that I can take part in the discussion.
10. Get me some Dickens, cuz I promised myself I would.
11. Buy some expensive hair products.
12. Replace the black beret I lost.
13. Watch Helena's Blue's Clues DVD, with or without her, so I can see how these episodes end. Better without, in fact.
14. Read.

Two weeks into January, and not a single book!

My copy of this book arrived just before Christmas, and I'm dying to crack it so I can tell the world how clever Rachel is (well, she's clever regardless).

Meanwhile, Iain Pears' The Dream of Scipio stares at me accusingly. The 72 pages I have read, numerous times and in varying order, have been rather thought-provoking, commenting to me on my affect on the world.

15. Clean the kitty litter.

The musical

Reading! Doesn't it make you just want to burst into song?
(Via Bookninja.)

(Does anyone sing while reading? anything other than musical scores and song lyrics, that is.)

Monday, January 10, 2005

The poetry of video games

This year's Game Developers Conference offers an artistic challenge:

Last year, the Game Design Challenge asked three veteran designers to present a concept for a game that told a love story. This year, returning Game Design Challenge champion Will Wright returns to face off against two new competitors. The theme? Design a game around a highly unusual "license" — the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

Now, I've never been much of a Dickinson fan (oh, the horror!), and a lot of (most) poetry leaves me cold (egads!). In fact, my attitude toward poetry is very similar to how I feel about video games: Too many clichés, too many shortcuts. A sense that something interesting is going on, but lacking focus and depth. Ambitious but uncontrolled.

But when they're good, they're awesome.

I first read about the above challenge at Collision Detection, where a commenter pointed to a review of Mojibribon:

I've never seen a game before that made aesthetic harmony the goal of the game.

The Heian/Nara period saw a flourishing of refined elite culture among court aristocrats. Men and women of rank judged each other on their skills in poetry, dress, and calligraphy. Mojibrobbon draws from that culture, not only implicitly through the leveling-up conditions but also through the storyline, which is written in an old-fashioned classical style and references Japanese mythology.

It's a kind of Pillow Book.

I've wandered through videogame stores in recent years, wanting to spend money, wanting to be sucked into a virtual world. Sadly, the genre of game I best like is losing its audience, or more than likely never fully found it. A role-playing story-driven puzzle-solving adventure game, with a bit of action thrown in.

There are very few standouts in this tradition as it's not possible to camouflage game flaws with body counts. You can only look at a pretty picture so long if it's narratively empty.

(None of my favourites perfectly fits my ideal. Mix Gabriel Knight and The Longest Journey with Silent Hill 2 and American McGee's Alice, and you might interest me.)

Neither of the above newfound examples of game design exactly meet my criteria, but they may satisfy an element that I've found lacking. They're literate. They look to literary devices to guide their design, to strike a balance of form and content. They stretch beyond their box consoles to imagine the marriage of art and science on a new platform. A modernity that embraces old traditions in a world that is the antithesis of poetry, romance, honour.

There can be poetry in high technology.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Tsunami disaster relief

Please, go leave a comment for Michele. A donation of one dollar for each person who comments will be donated to Oxfam International. Please.

The detritus in my head

The difference between the poet and the mathematician was that the poet merely tried to get his head into the clouds while the mathematician tried to get the clouds into his head — and it was his head that split.
–G.K. Chesterton

The limits of science:
Modern science begins with the ejection of purpose, value and significance from the universe. This is one main reason why the "scientific world view" fails to deal with all aspects of reality.

What scientists believe but cannot prove, including that there is a God and that there is no God, that people make irrational choices, that true love exists. My favourite is from psychologist Alison Gopnik:
I believe, but cannot prove, that babies and young children are actually more conscious, more vividly aware of their external world and internal life, than adults are. I believe this because there is strong evidence for a functional trade-off with development. Young children are much better than adults at learning new things and flexibly changing what they think about the world. On the other hand, they are much worse at using their knowledge to act in a swift, efficient and automatic way. They can learn three languages at once but they can't tie their shoelaces.

Ryszard Kapuścinski tells the awful truth of war (Can the man ever write! Read this!) (Via Media Dragon):
When there is talk of the year 1945, I am irritated by the phrase, "the joy of victory". What joy? So many people perished! Millions of bodies were buried! Thousands lost arms and legs; lost sight and hearing; lost their minds. Yes, we survived, but at what a cost! War is proof that man as a thinking and sentient being has failed.

"An unclean den of ethnic babble":
I came across the following sentence in a term paper recently. The student was about to describe how she had arrived at her conclusions. This is what she wrote: "The following methodology was utilized." I see this kind of thing all the time. Not "the following method was used"; not ever "this is what I did." Like nearly all the students I've taught, this young woman has learned to believe that the English language does not have room for her. That it is a secret code known only to the initiated. That the language she speaks is uneducated, inferior and incorrect. Hence the corseted tone, the vocabulary that strains at sophistication, the way she absents herself from her own writing. This is a student who has been taught to worship the volcano god of Correct English.
. . .Our language should be a playground; instead we make it into a minefield. . .
"The limits of my language," Wittgenstein said, "are the limits of my world."

Cranks &nd Lurkers, online poetry journal, invites you to vote and submit (Via
" eliminate the cronyism and narrow subjectivity endemic to traditional literary journals, and discover some of the best poems being written in English today."

Sixty aeropaintings exhibited in London:
Soar to the skies! Flight is heroic! Its changing perspectives mean a whole new reality and an absolute break with the past! Thus the Italian Futurists in one of their screaming manifestos, declaring war on the poor old art of humdrum earth. The plane, they announced, 'is the very symbol of Futurism'.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Happy birthday Ivonna!

You're still the best sister ever.

I didn't know what to get you. I was looking at books and CDs for you, and hats and sweaters, but nothing seemed right.

Did you want a new job for your birthday?

I know you're just settling into your new condo, but I hear castles are all the rage. This one comes with a small lake and orangerie.

It's not for me to give you the world, but maybe a piece of another world?

I'll figure out a proper present for you by the time I next see you. In the meantime, the very best of all possible wishes are being sent your way for a fabulous day and year ahead.


Literary Darwinism

I found this essay days ago, and at that time I seriously believed that by this point in the week the bulk of my workload would be behind me and I would've had sufficient sleep and coffee to grapple intelligently with The Pleasures of Fiction (as presented by Dennis Dutton).

But that's not happening for me.

Instead I'm posting the link and making just a few brief notes, filing it away to be read the next time I find myself asking "Why read?"

By "fiction" Dennis Dutton means "fictional story-telling," which includes plays, cinema, and television drama in addition to books and magazines.

"A love of fiction is as universal as governance, marriage, jokes, religion, and the incest taboo."

Dutton (a man, by the way, who panned The Lord of the Rings movies as absurdly overrated, but that's neither here nor there) digs himself in to review Joseph Carroll's Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature.

Story-telling falls under the Cognition behaviour system, one of the coexisiting basic systems that make up the fabric of life, the foundation of human social constructions.

But why fiction, and not simple factual narrative? Two issues:
1) The adaptive usefulness of fiction.
2) The pleasure of the experience.

And then it all gets very complicated.

In reference to Steven Pinker's view that pleasure is a mere by-product of the usefulness, Carroll says he is misguided.

But art goes further: "It helps us to regulate our complex psychological organization, and it helps us cultivate our socially adaptive capacity for entering mentally into the experience of other people." This is not quite the same thing as imaginatively encountering a dangerous elephant in a story. It is rather a matter of entering empathically into the minds of our fellows. It may come to us as entertainment, but fiction has profound effects on making us what we are.

Then there's something about the ephemeral and subjective experience of music, hypothetical drugs to mimic the experience, and Dickens.

Carroll writes about David Copperfield's relationship with books:
What he gets is lively and powerful images of human life suffused with the feeling and understanding of the astonishingly capable and complete human beings who wrote them. It is through this kind of contact with a sense of human possibility that he is enabled to escape from the degrading limitations of his own local environment. He is not escaping from reality; he is escaping from an impoverished reality into the larger world of healthy human possibility. By nurturing and cultivating his own individual identity through his literary imagination, he enables himself to adapt successfully to this world. He directly enhances his own fitness as a human being, and in doing so he demonstrates the kind of adaptive advantage that can be conferred by literature.

"Fiction provides us with templates for a normal emotional life."

"The meaning of a literary work, Carroll says, is not in the events it recounts. It is how events are interpreted that makes meaning."

Books do not define us. They help us define ourselves.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Word of the day

schnauzkrampf (schnauz·krampf) (shnouts¢krahmpf) [Ger. schnauze snout, muzzle + krampf cramp] a facial grimace resembling pouting; observed in some catatonic patients.

Not only is it the word of the day, I fear it has been the expression on my face all day long, since Helena woke me before 5 a.m.

Helena is with her grandmother for the weekend. J-F is asleep.

The world is quiet here, now.

What the f---?!

Do you live in Virginia?

Virginia State Representative John Cosgrove introduced a bill to the Virginia legislature requiring any woman who experiences "fetal death" without a doctor’s assistance to report this to the local law-enforcement agency within twelve hours of the miscarriage. Failure to do so is punishable as a misdemeanour -- "confinement in jail for not more than 12 months and a fine of not more than $2500, either or both."

The bill and its implications are summarized here. If you live in Virginia, please take up some of the suggestions listed there.

Do something!


"The disclaimer is a tragically underused literary device."

The literature of misbehavior — of low living and high bar tabs, of fast sex and languorous narcosis, of chain-smoking and binge drinking and unchecked gambling and general self-vandalism — can be ferociously inspiring, yet while even episodes of "Jackass" and "South Park" kick off with a stern warning, this literature, wrapped in its innocent, just-us-books-here packaging, can catch you unaware. Its influence only becomes apparent as you rub your eyes upon emerging from a 10-year beer bender, your bookmark nestled right where you left it in that Bukowski collection.

Actual disclaimers published on actual books:
"Both the author and the publisher of this work must insist that none of the self-destructive lifestyles or poor decisions or sordid situations in this work be imitated."
"If you cause yourself unwanted harm because of something you read in this book, then you are an idiot."

(Via Media Dragon.)

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Impossible dream

Ever wanted to read Don Quixote?

You can! Well-Educated Minds is reading the classics! It's like a book club! And it's just starting, so you don't have to worry about having missed anything! You can post your thoughts, comment on others', or read along silently! It's all very exciting!

Coincidentally, this article ponders whether Don Quixote holds up after 400 years. "Would Don Quixote pass the test and be published in New York today?"

Don Quixote holds the unique distinction of having invaded our language (the world's languages!) as well as our imaginations:

Some authors are so influential that their names have been turned into adjectives: Dantean, Proustian, Hemingway-esque. But how many literary characters have undergone a similar fate? "Quixotic," "quixotism," and "quixotry," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, are all related to "Quixote," "an enthusiastic visionary person like Don Quixote, inspired by lofty and chivalrous but false or unrealizable ideals."

Don Quixote is also Paul Auster's favourite book.

Author, futurist, inventor

Margaret Atwood in consultation with computer experts has invented a remote autographing device after having endured one too many strenous book-signing tours.

"I thought, there has to be a better way of doing this," Atwood says. ". . . I am now an old-age pensioner, I cannot keep doing this. I can't keep eating Pringles [from the hotel minibar] and keep getting on the plane at 4 in the morning."


Now she can sign your book from anywhere! You, however, will likely still have to trek out to the bookstore — a valuable tool for the marketing arms of publishers and bookstores, I don't foresee individuals shelling out big bucks to have one their very own.

The "in-bookstore enhancement device" comprises two units, send and receive, used to transfer an inscription. It allows for editing and spelling checks. The on-screen interaction will be preserved for posterity.

Remarkably, you will still hold in your hands on old-fashioned book, tracing the pen indentations scratched by your favourite author.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

"I can't tell you"

Officially, the Templars don't exist, but a letter last year signed on behalf of their grand master demanded an apology from the Vatican for having persecuted them in the 14th century.

The man in Hertfordshire (not Dan Brown) to whom the letter was traced has this to say:

"Among my peers, there are people like me who believe that these issues deserve further attention ... There's a new generation coming through that strongly believes it's time to be a bit more open. I'm part of that generation." Besides, he says ominously, "Things are about to happen that will deserve attention."

Still no word on where the Holy Grail might be.

What mothers do

Naomi Stadlen's What Mothers Do — Especially When It Looks Like Nothing is reviewed in The Guardian.

"The how-to books, Stadlen suggests, reduce mothering to a series of tasks rather than a developing relationship." So here's another book to help describe the mommy experience rather than prescribe the rules of the practical tasks in physically tending to baby.

I wish there'd been more of these books when I first embarked on motherhood. I'm sure a few existed at that time, but nobody knew about them; I certainly didn't have a clue, not only about how to take care of baby — I couldn't begin to consider what kind of information, resources, support, outlets I might need to help me become the person this new relationship was transforming me into.

Frankly, I'm amazed that I managed to figure it out all by myself (how to be a mother), with the love and support of many of course. Needless to say, I'm still learning, but it's easier now — I'm braced for it.

Stadlen is absolutely right to argue that mothers often feel lonely, invisible and unimportant, as evidenced by the number who say, "I get nothing done all day," when in fact they have been interacting all-consumingly with a newborn. Practical tasks we can describe, but not the act of a woman who has just started something — lunch, tidying up, a shower ––when her baby wakes up and calls for her. Becoming instantly interruptible, she must put aside the threads of her personal existence and attend to it.

Instantly interruptible.

Regarding writer-mothers, women who are too self-centred to mother properly:
she comes in with a much tenderer explanation — that they find the degree of closeness with their babies unbearable because they don't feel sufficiently separate from them. They suffer from what Mel Brooks in The Producers calls "the urge to merge", and Stadlen is superb on how such mothers can feel accused by their babies' crying because they don't have a steady sense of themselves.

I should take better care to list these books as I find them. It may be too late for me, but I should have them on hand for when I find other women in need of them.

No twinkling here

Helena's taken a fancy to "Twinkle, twinkle, little star" in recent days.

This morning she changed the words to "No, no, no no, no no no..."

She is so very 2.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Paul who?

Paul Auster. Again.

If you're still wondering who that guy is I blather on so admiringly about every so often, the California Literary Review sums up his life and works to date:

His characters are restless inquisitors, asking endless questions of life, undertaking journeys across the vastness of America, often in solitude, in pursuit of ends which even they themselves are unaware. . . [Auster] subscribes to the belief that it is only through the construction of reality that we are truly able to perceive, rationalise and comprehend the one within which we are forced to spend our lives; he is fascinated by the breaking down of the boundaries between what is lived and what is read; and the blurring of the distinction between what is experienced and what is written.

Auster’s narrative voice is comfortable and sublimely assured, and, given his abstract and existential preoccupations, oddly conversational. He achieves something rare in fiction: the combination of the novel of ideas with a compulsively readable style.

(Here I resist the temptation to add "Just like me.")

The review notes that Auster is immensely popular in continental Europe, whereas many Americans dismiss, disdain, even fear his work for being too intellectual.

Yet for those readers who share Auster’s worldview, his belief in the quixotic fluidity of existence, its chaos, its lack of order, its inherent reliance upon the unpredictable, upon the twists and turns of fate, chance and coincidence — as he says in Oracle Night, 'randomness stalks us every day of our lives' — will find within his work a speculative restless centre, around which an undoubted belief in the tragic beauty of life turns.

(Yes, I know something's wrong with that sentence. I found it that way.)

Too, I'm pleased that someone else calls his books "ghost stories."

Gotta get my stuff done

Rejoice! I am not alone! (Via Scribbling Woman.)

Monday, January 03, 2005

Spotless and blue

I am in such a pissy mood today.

We watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind last night. Finally. After having exhausted his list of must-sees and on my promise of sexual favours, J-F agreed to rent it.

J-F hates renting "downer" movies. I admit, I sometimes miss them (along with the art films and foreign crap I used to immerse myself in), though to some degree I've adopted a more escapist attitude toward movie rentals. But this movie is labelled a romantic comedy.

I cried. Much. Still crying (on the inside).

I'm not a sentimental person, not in an openly schmaltzy way anyway — I choose my sentiments carefully and keep them close. If my memories of anyone were to be erased, sure, life would be different, in the way that everything leaves an imprint on all it comes in contact with. But would any one person's erasure (Helena excepted, but even then... ) leave a marked lacuna in my life?

The movie was sad. Sadder is that I may not be desperately close to anyone the lack of whom would produce such a profound sense of something missing. Not more so than I go through life anyway with that profound sense of something missing.

Before anyone tells me it's a wonderful life, blah, blah, blah, go see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and consider very seriously all the implications of the technology it postulates. How would you know something (someone) was missing if you were programmed to be not aware of the lack?

(Elaine and I used to spend hours discussing the difference between being really truly happy and being deluded into believing you're happy — as in a cult for example. I think it's how we became friends finally in grade 8. On the rare occasions I see her or we exchange email, the subject is alive.)

The Mundane Manifesto promotes science fiction that adheres to the following rules:

No interstellar travel — travel is limited to within the solar system and is difficult, time consuming and expensive
No aliens unless the connection is distant, difficult, tenuous and expensive — and they have no interstellar travel either
No Martians, Venusians, etc.
No alternative universes or parallel worlds
No magic or supernatural elements
No time travel or teleportation

That's the best kind of SF really.

I've been watching my houseplants die. Every day for over a month now I noticed them and would think I should water them, and then I'd do something else, cuz one more day couldn't hurt. It hurt. Today finally I pored over these two once-luscious masses of vines and hacked them back to inches. Part of me wanted to throw them in the trash, but I'd already acted such a monster toward them, I couldn't bring myself to do it. So they're pruned, extremely pruned. New year, fresh start and all that.

The business on the first floor of our building suffered water damage this morning, a leak through the ceiling. Our landlord is certain that we're at fault — clogging the kitchen sink and letting the water overflow. Never mind that our kitchen sink is just fine, we're puzzled how our actions on the third floor could impact the first floor so catastrophically while bypassing the landlord's unit on the second floor entirely.

We've been watching Blue's Clues: Bluestock. We don't get to see Blue's Clues in these parts (to my knowledge anyway) though we're familiar with the show by reputation and have even seen a couple episodes while off visiting. So we picked up a DVD last week, and I might add it's a breath of fresh after watching the Caillou's Holiday Movie a gazillion times in December.

From the start Helena had a special fondness for Macy Gray's number cuz it encouraged her to "dance like a monkey." However, the phrase about dancing "like you have ants in your pants" has made an impression. She sticks out her diaper-clad bottom, pulling on the waist, and says "Regarde Mama, Papa. A bee!" Sometimes it's a spider.

Sunday, January 02, 2005


Main Entry: res·o·lu·tion
Pronunciation: "re-z&-'lü-sh&n
Function: noun

5 : the point in a literary work at which the chief dramatic complication is worked out

9 a. An explanation, as of a problem or puzzle; a solution. b. The part of a literary work in which the complications of the plot are resolved or simplified.

Strength of will

I don't make resolutions.

Last year I stated a few, for the sake of form, but within a few days I forgot what they were.

New year's resolutions are an artificial construct. Every day is in fact the start of a new year and as appropriate a time as any to better oneself.

Trust me. New year's eve was much better spent drinking champagne while listening to, and mocking, our Kraftwerk collection.

Determining a course of action

At Orient Lodge an old chant is remembered: "Our Life, is more than Our Work, and Our Work is more than Our Job."

Mental Multivitamin offers some appropriate and meaningful suggestions. The challenge is taken up at Seeking Clarity, and spirit is echoed by SC&A.


Coming into focus

I took a few English courses in university. Most of them bored me. But I learned something in Modern British Poetry about how to read (more than just poetry) and the importance of structure of thought, if not form.

The one class that stands out in my memory as supremely interesting and which garnered a lot of energy from me was on dystopian literature. I suppose that in itself speaks volumes about my predispositions and worldview.

All this to say, I do not read as an academic.

Though I earn my living as an editor, it's a very different kind of material that I'm naturally drawn to: Nor do I read as a professional.

I read as someone who takes solace in the feel of a book, who enjoys a good story, who wonders what makes people tick, who wonders what if.

How it all turns out

The point is always a variation of the combination of the following:

  • to live each day to its fullest
  • to be a better person

I've been reading Iain Pears' The Dream of Scipio in fits and starts over the last couple weeks. I'd hoped to add this to the list of books read in 2004, but what with those pesky family interruptions in my life of the mind, I've only managed to read the first half-dozen dozen pages (that's 72), albeit numerous times to recall and refresh.

The stories of three men at three different critical moments of Western civilization, linked by some writings and by geography, are interwoven in such a way as to invite comparison and the drawing of parallels. Inevitably I draw into this matrix my own life and place in history. For this opportunity for contemplation and self-reflection I'm grateful to have read each paragraph thrice.

Was Julien a mere bookworm? Or was he sensitive to the outside world, could he absorb time and place, feel history in the stones and use this to make his work more sensitive and more subtle? Are you a mere pedant, Monsieur? Or do you have the spark of vitality inside you? Will you do something with your life? Answer my question with all the wit at your disposal and let us see.

Can reading make you a better person? Not for the mere stores of knowledge it results in. But perhaps, if it makes us more understanding and encourages us to undertake our days thoughtfully and in awareness.

Books in the future

The Guardian highlights a few books to be released over the next 6 months.

May 2005 will see the release of Nick Hornby's fourth novel, A Long Way Down:

What is life all about? Why do we bother? And what happens when we've had enough? On New Year's Eve, four characters meet on the top of a tower block in north London. As the end of the year approaches, all four are intending to plunge themselves towards the ground. Instead they avoid death, become friends, and take turns to narrate the novel.

I hope he didn't write this book about you.