Saturday, July 30, 2005

Burst bubbles

I miss bubblebaths.

There was a time, in my pre-committed-relationship days, where I enjoyed a weekly date with myself. It wasn't something I scheduled — it just naturally etched its own space into my life. Me time. Away from work, an evening without family or friends, not thinking about who's out at the pub, no boys. Something I obviously needed and loved.

Some shopping, usually a trip to the market, a nice meal at home with wine, a bubblebath, a book or a movie. More wine, and chocolate or potato chips, depending which best complemented the supper.

(I would only ever venture to indulge in such a special evening if the apartment was spotless. Otherwise I wouldn't enjoy it. A reward of sorts for having spent the morning cleaning.)

I always had a healthy supply of bath additives. Nothing too fancy. Just a step up from regular soap was enough to make me feel special. I think I treated myself well.

(I remember a coworker, mother of a small child, once telling me she wished she had time for such luxuries as bubblebaths. I didn't understand.)

When J-F and I shacked up, I simply fell out of the habit. It didn't seem right to not be spending every waking moment with each other. Now we shared trips to market, romantic dinners, and cuddling and chatting while watching a movie or listening to music.

The tub was too small and uncomfortable for sharing baths. They weren't essential, after all. Besides, now the bathroom was rarely even clean or tidy enough for me to want to spend so much time there. Soon after, we moved to an apartment that had no bathtub. Showers only. Bubblebaths dropped out of my life.

In our new home, the bathtub is wide and deep, comfortable. The bathroom is spacious, well-lit. It's a calm space. Clean like only new homes can be — how beautiful the knowledge that no stranger has sat in this tub or vomited in that toilet, ours are the first steps across this floor.

Yesterday afternoon, I had my first bath, for my own personal enjoyment. Not because a toddler persuaded me to join her and I was already drenched from all her splashing I may as well, or because the shower stall drain was clogged or the hot water tank was disconnected and a cold shower would be too devastating. Because I was tired, resltess, sore, and wanted to read a magazine.

It was all right.

No candles this time, though there are plenty of nooks and ledges. No glass of champagne within reach. But an adequate if slightly stale assortment of salts and oils.

I'm going to try again next week.

Friday, July 29, 2005


Busy working. No, not really. Busy procrastinating.

Busy mulling over Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, trying to decide what it is I want to say about it.

Busy reading Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things.

Busy wondering where should I hang those pictures and where are the damn curtain rod brackets.

Busy noting the recent crop of weird and wonderful expressions Helena has adopted.

Busy sleeping. I love sleep.

Busy checking out other people's blogs.
Scribbling Woman on (old) age as represented in literature.
Mental Multivitamin on how the text should stand alone.
Collision Detection on both minimizing and enhancing jargon.

The Economist on the glass ceiling.

Nothing much going on. Nothing much to say.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Potter digested

Courtesy of the Guardian:

Dumbledore appeared at the door. "I've come to take you to the Weasleys," he said kindly. "And when you return to Hogwarts, you will be having some one-to-one tuition with me. You have so much back story to catch up on that you won't be ready for your final adventure unless you do a lot of cramming."

I read the whole thing over the weekend and enjoyed it immensely. There's nothing I can say that hasn't been said elsewhere. I liked it far better than the last two books. And I choose to believe Snape is on the side of good.

I love Harry Potter and I have no doubt he'll be loved generations from now, but I've always hesitated to call this series Good Writing. But after reading the above and various other adult discussions about this latest instalment, I have a much greater respect for the story's structure, the detail, the clues. Rowling could still use some editing though.

Helena and relativity

Helena received this doll for Christmas:

Certainly, the idea of him is funny — a perfect counterpoint to our Barbie culture — and he's funny-looking, but there was something a little creepy in the thought of my daughter taking this effigy of an eccentric (if brilliant) old man to bed with her.

I didn't dwell on him though, because Helena didn't. Her interest passed onto the next shiny package.

Until a couple of weeks ago. She rediscovered Einstein. She takes him everywhere. She asks for him by name. She takes his sweater off because it's too hot. She shares meals with him.

She takes him to the park. Dressed in some of her finest — clothes received as gifts, clothes too "pretty" for rambunctious toddlers engaged in daycare play activities, outfits with sailor collars, as J-F says, of another era — Helena sits in the sand with Einstein, engrossed in her physics experiments.

Other parents smile at Helena. Some ask about her doll. "Is that Einstein?" Some of them get the joke, comment on his wild hair or erratic behaviour, and start talking science, to Helena or their own kids. Some of them give me a funny look.

I wonder sometimes what other people — strangers — must think of the sort of mother I am. (Mostly I don't care, but I wonder.) Though I believe there's some worth in "educational" toys, most such toys are imbued with value by insecure parents and ever-at-the-ready marketing departments rather than quantifiable effects on a child's development.

I've never gone in for Baby Einstein or Baby Mozart products — we have books, blocks, and real Mozart (et al). I will not condescend to Helena, nor drive her down some educational fast-track. I wasn't too sure about this doll's message.

But what with all Helena's love for and joy with him, it turns out that Einstein is a pretty sensible toy. (I may have to pick up Gandhi or Jane Austen for next Christmas.)
The biggest freakin' dragonfly I've ever seen.

On our back porch.

And we don't live in a swamp.

Monday, July 25, 2005


This weekend we watched What the Bleep Do We Know!?

It promised to ask some interesting questions about quantum physics and reality, and it did. But they're essentially the same questions I've been asking myself for years.

[I don't really know how this relates — a quantum-parallel consciousness? — but the film kept reminding me: when I was teenager, I dreamed I was dead. I did not see myself die, or observe the world affected by my death. I dreamed the experience of being dead, that everything was simultaneously dark and light, heavy and weightless. I wish I could dream it again.]

Synopsis (from the official website):
It is part documentary, part story, and part elaborate and inspiring visual effects and animations. The protagonist, Amanda, played by Marlee Matlin, finds herself in a fantastic Alice in Wonderland experience when her daily, uninspired life literally begins to unravel, revealing the uncertain world of the quantum field hidden behind what we consider to be our normal, waking reality.


The fourteen top scientists and mystics interviewed in documentary style serve as a modern day Greek Chorus. In an artful filmic dance, their ideas are woven together as a tapestry of truth. The thoughts and words of one member of the chorus blend into those of the next, adding further emphasis to the film’s underlying concept of the interconnectedness of all things.

The chorus members act as hosts who live outside of the story, and from this Olympian view, comment on the actions of the characters below. They are also there to introduce the Great Questions framed by both science and religion, which divides the film into a series of acts. Through the course of the film, the distinction between science and religion becomes increasingly blurred, since we realize that, in essence, both science and religion describe the same phenomena.

While I enjoyed the concept of the movie and the ideas presented, the "story" on which all the documentary soundbites hang I thought was incredibly weak. Better to present a straight doumentary.

Specifically, three character traits were obvious but unexplored, so rendering them pointless.

1. She is deaf. How does this affect her powers of perception?

2. She is a photographer. Is she a keener observer for this? The "chorus" comments on how the brain registers scenes in our environment, but doesn't necessarily process them. [I'm reminded of the game Mara plays, to hone her skills of observation, and understanding.] But her character detail is wasted, her occupation merely serving as a reason to attend a wedding of strangers and observe human behaviours.

3. She takes antianxiolytics. Commentary touched on addiction (to various behaviours in general), how synapses fire and neural networks are built (and detroyed), and how to fool the brain (what is the difference, biochemically, between actually seeing or experiencing something and believing it?) One "expert" tells us a nervous breakdown is the destruction of a model of perception we had wired into our brain. [More thoughts on breakdowns to come as I wrap up The Golden Notebook.]

It bothered me that the credentials of the experts were not presented till the final credits were rolling. I suspect that had I known them up front, I would've viewed their commentary with a lot more skepticism.

While I was interested in hearing viewpoints on where science and God overlap and intersect, early on, the chorus turned more mystic than scientist and the movie took on a power-of-positive-thinking flavour (not my cup of tea).

One expert relates the anecdote (hypothesis?) that the Native Indians didn't see Christopher Columbus's ships approaching, because such an occurrence was beyond their wildest imagination. But they witnessed the effects of the ships — waved rolling on the shore — and exercised their reasoning to learn to be able to see them. (Doesn't most science witness merely the effects?) This little tidbit had us searching the backyard for aliens.

[Some time ago I'd noted an article regarding a new paper suggesting that SETI is looking in the wrong places. "Any long-lasting intelligent civilizations will have intensive information-processing needs, and indeed may "be" information, having hit the Singularity and uploaded their consciousnesses into the aether. In that case, the authors suggest, alien civilizations would head out to the frozen outer regions of the Milky Way — where information-processing would be easier for thermodynamic reasons." I think I understand it, but only because I'd been watching Doctor Who, and am reminded of Robert J Sawyer's Calculating God — the idea that an alien lifeform could be outside the existing paradigm we hold of "lifeform."]

The more I think about it, the less I like this movie, but it generated more interesting conversations than many recent films.

Friday, July 22, 2005

On my list

New books from a couple of my favourite authors! I'm looking forward to Christmas...

Margaret Atwood
The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus
November 2005

From Atwood's introduction to the book:
Homer’s Odyssey is not the only version of the story. Mythic material was originally oral, and also local — a myth would be told one way in one place and quite differently in another. I have drawn on material other than The Odyssey, especially for the details of Penelope’s parentage, her early life and marriage, and the scandalous rumours circulating about her.

I’ve chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and to her twelve hanged maids. The Maids form a chanting and singing Chorus which focuses on two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of The Odyssey: what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? The story as told in The Odyssey doesn’t hold water: there are too many inconsistencies. I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids; and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself.

(Crap. Now I have to read The Odyssey.)

Paul Auster
Brooklyn Follies
December 2005

From an early review (via Rake's Progress):
Brooklyn Follies is a big box filled to the brim with little boxes — and reading upends the big box over your head. Each box has a story and — there are hundreds of them, competing for your attention and ... it can get a little bewildering. And in the midst of the tumbling boxes, you have [main character] Nathan saying oh hang on, let me tell you this first, let me tell you that, we'll talk about her later, forget about them for now etc etc etc. There's a deliberate clumsiness to proceedings which (you feel) is Auster trying on clothes for size (writing a warm book, a la Ian McEwan with Saturday) that don't quite fit or suit.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Language attitude

I've been learning to speak franglais. For the most part, it's been a fairly unconscious process, but some aspects are deliberate.

We live in a predominantly French-speaking neighbourhood. Many well-rehearsed phrases from high school classes have come in handy, for example, when buying stamps. I learned early on, however, in retail and service counter situations, to play up my accent to ensure that I wasn't mistaken for bilingual. My "effort" to speak French would be acknowledged, and the other half of the conversation would slow down a little, use a simpler vocabulary, sometimes even slip into English.

Then I had a French baby. Bilingual, really. But French is Helena's language of choice, the easy one, the one that sees her through the business of daily life — French is the language she speaks. I speak to her in English, and I choose to believe she fully comprehends what I say.

Inevitably, I've taken on plenty of her utterances (and rudimentary grammar), incorporating her words into my speech. Voila: franglais.

One of the difficulties in language switching is accent switching. The words tumble out, but the mouth has trouble shaping itself accurately around the now doubled number of subtle sounds required.

While J-F revels in mocking the accents of English speakers, he knows better in my presence and won't risk my never uttering a French word again.

I show Helena the new pyjamas I bought for her, remarking how soft the fabric is, what lovely pantalons with all the pink fleurs. I heard myself saying it, tired, lips and tongue unable to move in French.

"C'est des fleurs, Mama. Pas flewhaah." There's a glint in her eye. She's mocking me.

How did I come to give birth to a French perfectionist?
(Oh, yeah: J-F[French] + me[perfectionist])

Scribbling in the margins

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana Annotation Project (via Splinters).

If only my marginalia were so smart.

Why have I not read this book yet? What is wrong with me?

(I haven't read it because I must first finish The Golden Notebook — I'm in the final pages. Also, Harry Potter arrived a couple days ago, weeks ahead of schedule, in fact, sent on ahead of the rest of my order.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Hot water

The hot water tank is in our bedroom closet.

When moving boxes and bags around recently, we saw the tank was encircled by a sticky black patch. Wet. Grimy. Likely moldy. New wood floors if not already then soon rotting.

Plumber #1 arrives. Confirms the tank has a leak. Can't see it. Must be on the bottom.

Borrows my pen — one of my favourites, cuz it was handy — and fails to return it.

Unanswered phonecalls. We learn that the annual 2-week construction worker holiday has begun, and the offices are closed. Phonecalls to building contractor.

Plumber #2 arrives. Looks at the tank. Hmmm.

After 10 minutes, asks if we have a garden hose. No. Checks his truck. Takes the neighbour's garden hose (adjoining building but separate condo corporation) to drain the tank.

Asks if there's a man around to help him carry the tank. His partner is at the dentist. No. Mother-in-law, here to watch Helena, tells him J-F will be home soon.

Plumber assaults J-F at the door for assistance in wiggling the tank inside, before even Helena is deposited or I get a kiss hello.

It's only at the top of the stairs that J-F realizes he's expected to help carry the tank downstairs. We're running late for our evening out.

Plumber fiddles with old tank. Catches the skin of his thumb on an edge and bleeds all over our bathroom. Announces he's going to the clinic.

The door buzzes at 11:23, 10 minutes after we've turned out the lights and gone to bed. Plumber. To collect his tools. At 11 fucking 23.

We're scantily clad. I don't want him in my bedroom at that hour. He's oblivious to my indications that he should remain by the front door while J-F collects his tools for him. He barges past. I hold my breath, in anger, and also expecting Helena to wake up.

Plumber waves his bandaged thumb about, a bit dramatically. "Did you get stitches?" "Oh, no. It's not serious."

Plumber #2 is stupid (but fast).

J-F has a cold spongebath before setting off for work.

Plumber #1 returns and installs new tank. Advises that old tank will be removed on Friday, when plumber #2's thumb is better.

Old tank sits in the middle of our bedroom, on cardboard and towels, now very wet, still leaking.

I have a garden hose to return.

How do you count oatmeal?

Originally compiled as a resource for missionaries, Ethnologue currently counts 6912 languages in the world.

New York Times:
"We tend to see languages as basically marbles, and we're trying to get all the marbles in our bag and count how many marbles we have," said M. Paul Lewis, a linguist who manages the Ethnologue database ( and will edit the 16th edition. "Language is a lot more like oatmeal, where there are some clearly defined units but it's very fuzzy around the edges."


Yesterday evening we enjoyed cocktails with a couple hundred other people in celebration of the return of Michel Risque, "l'un des héros mythique de la bande dessinée québécoise."

The book launch of the reissue of Les Aventures de Michel Risque: Le Savon maléfique, by Réal Godbout and Pierre Fournier (J-F's uncle), from Les Éditions de la Pastèque, was part of BD Montreal, the first ever comic strip component of the Just for Laughs festival, in association with L’Association Bande Dessinée and the Salon du Livre de Montréal.

We have our autographed copy, and I'll be making my best efforts to read the damn thing — it's in the family, after all — though the colloquial language will prove a challenge for me.

Here's a quiz by which I can gauge my comprehension. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

About the girl

I've been wanting to write about Helena — a progress report, a summary of recent developments — for some time now, but I haven't really known where to start. Nor did I want my words to radiate too much negativity, which is hard, because, honestly, she's been a horrid little creature of late.

Umpteen tantrums a day, for no discernible reason.

Maybe it's the heat, though I'm pretty sure I remember her wailing in the cool of the rain.

Maybe she's teething. She had all her teeth ahead of schedule, except for the last four molars. Her mouth has been open wide enough and long enough for me to ascertain that the top back molars are present and accounted for. I'm scared to check for the bottom ones. But maybe that's the root of her tetchiness.

Maybe she's testing us, crying out for us to delimit her world, wanting someone to take control.

Maybe she's two, and this is just a phase. Maybe it's an existential spleen.

But the balance is shifting now. Since about Friday, the house is full with giggles.

She plays differently now. More narrative, more structured. Different.

She's excellent at jigsaw puzzles.

She adores D.W., Arthur's little sister, articulating her name with exactitude. We have one Arthur book (Marc Brown) from the book club we joined to start up Helena's library. It's at a higher reading level, but she takes joy in studying the more complicated illustrations, pointing out details and devising her own story. She watches for D.W. on tv.

We've been watching Hans Christian Andersen. She sings along and dances. She's in awe of the "princess" (ballerina).

(I am starting to miss Mary Poppins, though, and Helena's vigorous performance of "Step in Time.")

(Where does the princess fixation in little girls come from?)

There are kites in both Hans Christian Andersen and Mary Poppins. Helena loves the kites. I must see about getting a kite. I don't think she's ever seen a kite in real life.

We miss the ducks a little. The local park has no ducks. We occasionally wander down to the park in the old neighbourhood (le parc rouge — the park nearby is le parc jaune — because of the colour of the slide, I finally determined) to feed the ducks, but more often we just reminisce about them.

I've always left her bedroom door open a crack at night. As of a week ago, she insists on keeping a light on in her room. At my prompting, she admitted she was afraid, but I don't know of what.

She's almost, but not quite, toilet-trained. In the morning she asks to wear underwear, like a big girl, and to preempt my lecture very seriously declares that she will go pee-pee on the toilet.

She's "graduating," advancing to an older group, at daycare.

She counts "correctly," ascribing one number per object, without skipping numbers or counting the same object a gazillion times.

She says "please" and "thank you" (well, s'il vous plait and merci), almost always.

She notices things — when I hang blinds or pictures, or if I'm wearing a new skirt — little things. She has opinions.

She loves ice cream, preferring strawberry and vanilla over chocolate.

She's pretty amazing really.

Monday, July 18, 2005


December 1999, J-F and I vacationed in Paris. The brink of a new millennium, amid apocalyptic prophecies, and just before devastating storms swept the city and the rest of Europe.

All travels, I think, are marked by a theme or concept, often identified only retrospectively. Our trip wore an air of chaos, a sign of the times; we were gasping for breath and raging out of control. We celebrated a fierce love, as if enjoying a last hurrah on the eve of the world's end, though I realize now it signified the transition from the wildness of youth to adulthood and commitment.

Our trip had a soundtrack. And J-F purchased Enki Bilal's La trilogie Nikopol. He'd been a fan for years. The images were new to me.

© Enki Bilal.
 Posted by Picasa

The work is now available in English, and the first two parts of the trilogy have been translated to film (with many identical frames).

Immortel ad vitam ("Immortal" in English), directed by Enki Bilal, is a stunning blue-grey dystopia with a brooding soundscape.

The acting is atrocious. We'd assumed (wrongly) the film was in French and set it to play with English subtitles (for my benefit). We were lucky on this point — the French voice-acting carried far more pathos (and being the language of the original better evoked the scripts of J-F's adolescence). In particular, English is foreign to the actors playing Nikopol and Horus, and it shows.

The story is weak. Elements of it are full of promise, but none is ever explored.

The year is 2095. Aliens (the ancient Egyptian Gods) hover over the city. Horus has been condemned to death (we don't know why) but he returns to Earth in his final days, searching for a human host (Nikopol) by which to mate to continue his legacy.

In 2095, humans modify and upgrade body parts. Corporate and political interests involve the eugenics laboratories. Human society seems to be sharply stratified.

The film version has changed Nikopol's backstory. Now he's a revolutionary whose spirit has infected the masses. An interesting angle, but one that's not exploited.

The locale has been changed to New York City. The futuristic vision is striking, yet I feel the city itself was not as much a character as it could've been. Bilal would've wandered the streets of his own city, Paris, the story's original setting, more lovingly and to much greater effect.

The movie is still beautiful, with a visual and spiritual poetry. At times, I was reminded of Wings of Desire in the texture of the city, the home they're passing through, and, not least, thematically, as the blue-haired woman, an alien and destined to be Horus's "vessel," forgets her past and learns to be human. We catch occasional glimpses of her own perspective swimming through our world.

Nikopol is struck against a wall and seen to be "crucified." Horus mentions those very few special women — no one knows when or where they will appear — who are able to carry the seed of a god. None of the imagery or allusions is carried far enough to call any of it an allegory, which is a shame, because these are pretty cool notions and it seems to me the Earth of 2095 may need salvation.

This film is terribly flawed, but outstanding in evincing a strange and unique vision of our future. Others will argue it's not so original, pointing to Bladerunner and The Fifth Element, or any number of sci-fi movies featuring corporate city-states or genetic manipulation. Immortel is all these with a twist, just a little weirder, a little richer, stretching the ideas so they are part of the fabric, without condescending to explain them.

It is one of the first movies to use an entirely digital backlot and uses only three human actors. I am mystified by some of the animation choices: why so obviously crude in places? why not real people? However, the Egyptian gods were rendered beautifully and naturally, I thought (though many people disagree).

All this is to say: I really liked this movie, but I don't know why.

Trailer and extracts available on the movie's official site (in French, but it's better that way).

Brief bio.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Bad books

Parents Against Bad Books in Schools lists books with questionable material along with a review form to help objectively identify them. (Via MobyLives.)

I can't imagine teenagers really enjoying Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, but they may pick it up now to be titillated by such tasty bits as this:

"He pointed to the Virgin’s slender bust, held high and tight by a cross-laced bodice, which the (Christ) Child’s tiny hands fondled.... Beautiful also are the breasts, which protrude slightly, only faintly tumescent, and do not swell licentiously, suppressed but not depressed... What do you feel before this sweetest of visions?"

Also noted are many controversial sentiments:
"A dream is a scripture, and many scriptures are nothing but dreams."
"...the female is a vessel of the devil..."

The book is riddled with homosexual monks, and there's witchcraft (never mind, that the "witch" is to be burned at the stake for it).

PABBIS, curriculum Inquisitors, are on the job. I just knew The Name of the Rose was a corrupting force.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005


"It is good that you explain the facts of Harry Potter, because this is a subtle seduction, which has deeply unnoticed and direct effects in undermining the soul of Christianity before it can really grow properly."

Do you know the facts?

Should I cave to the great marketing machine and just go ahead and order the damn book?

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Art by any other name

Easels were always liberally sprinkled throughout my Sims' houses. I was always making my Sims paint.

It's no surprise then that I had to have one for my little girl (Ikea, half price!). I've never forced it on her, but I'm ecstatic when she goes looking for it. It becomes her sole plaything for days at a time. It remained "packed" after our move, stored at the back of a closet, but the other week she asked after it.

As much as I delight in hearing of other people's artistic endeavours, I don't feel quite at ease in practicing my own. However, when I do sit down with Helena for colouring and when she invites me to her easel, I often stay with it long after her attention has passed to something else. I find it immensely calming.

J-F has been mocking our (my) "art" — as having a decidely Paleolithic influence reminiscent of the cave of Lascaux and other Magdalenian sites.

But what were these deliberately engineered and carefully contrived experiences designed to convey? What was the purpose of Magdalenian art? The answer is: we do not know, and we may never know. The earliest explanation was that they were the evening doodles of hunters, with no systematic purpose, spiritual, religious, utilitarian, totemic or even aesthetic. Then, throughout the twentieth century, eminent scholars the Abbé Henri Breuil, Max Raphael, Annette Laming Emperaire, Andre Leroi Gourhan, Reynaldo González Garcia and others devoted many years to formulating, elaborating and proving theories of use. These are contradictory and often mutually exclusive, and all have been eventually invalidated by fresh discoveries which do not fit. The utilitarian theory has been most generally held. But if the art was designed to teach the science of hunting, why did it include creatures already extinct or others that were never hunted? Why did it not include specific hunting scenes? In any case, anyone who has actually hunted knows that its skills are acquired not by studying pictures but by practise, something in which primitive peoples engaged from earliest youth, indeed childhood. Non utilitarian theories see the art as shamanistic, or magical or religious. But none of these fits all, or most or even many of the facts. There are no sacrifices depicted. Humans, almost always the central point of early religious art systems, scarcely figure at all. With one possible exception, the art shows no priest or sorcerer or witch doctor. There is nothing which could be termed a ceremony. An immense amount of classification and taxonomy has been performed on the caves and their contents, and elaborate timeschemes have been worked out. But these chronologies provide the appearance of knowledge rather than its reality. The earliest explanation seems as likely to be true, or untrue, as the later ones. We are a huge distance from Magdalenian society and its mentality, and finding answers to its mysterious actions requires an effort of imagination which may be beyond us.

According to Wikipedia, "the commonest themes in cave paintings are large wild animals, such as bison, horses, aurochs, and deer, and tracings of human hands." According to me, that last one is a dead giveaway as to the nature and intent of these artworks.


Such prosperity, whole emporia dedicated to cheeses, ribbons, Shaker furniture, is protection of a sort. This commercial wellbeing is robust and will defend itself to the last. It isn't rationalism that will overcome the religious zealots, but ordinary shopping and all that it entails — jobs for a start, and peace, and some commitment to realisable pleasures, the promise of appetites sated in this world, not the next. Rather shop than pray.

Saturday I rose early after a restless night, feeling a little drunk still, and started to read about Henry, who was just getting up from a very restless night.

Saturday, by Ian McEwan.

On the cover, an alarm clock, or a time bomb.

(Helena had gone to her grandmother's house Friday night. J-F and I had been looking forward to a day of some final unpacking — installing ourselves, towel racks, and curtains. The rain inspired instead a lazy day, drinking coffee, lounging, reading. Such days are so rare now. I love them.

Saturday had arrived in my mailbox by accident. I'd heard wonderful things about it, and, while I hadn't been sufficiently motivated to procure myself a copy, its immediate presence demanded I take a closer look.

I meant to skim it, for a slightly fuller taste than what the reviews had offered. Then I'd pack it back in its box and return it. But I feel, now, that would stealing. The book is a keeper, even if it's eating up a budget I'd intended for other books.)

I had trouble settling into the novel at first. I was highly distractible — my surrounding, cats, world events were invading my focus. I'm not used to having the luxury of reading for a whole morning at a stretch. Even so, I could recognize the book had merit.

Wonderful descriptions.
The surgeon's fingers: "the tips of which are flat and broad, like the suckers on a a salamander."

A turn of phrase:
"The sea of neural misery is wide and deep."

Poignant observations, expressed with economy:
"The square's public aspect grants privacy to these intimate dramas."

"...the babel of various gods..."

The novel follows a day in the life of neurosurgeon Henry Perowne on a day off — February 15, 2003, a day of antiwar demonstrations in London.

(A day in the life — a difficult conceit to pull off. For example, Don DeLillo comes to mind, but by contrast, Cosmopolis feels contrived. McEwan's Henry is ordinary, if educated and of a certain class. The characters are psychologically consistent, believable.)

The story is punctuated by new reports and casual conversations with family about current events, primarily the impending war with Iraq.
And how luxurious, to work it all out at home in the kitchen, the geopolitical moves and military strategy, and not be held to account, by voters, newspapers, friends, history. When there are no consequences, being wrong is simply an interesting diversion.

Saturday morning Henry has an altercation with a thug (whom Henry perceives to be afflicted by Huntington’s disease), the effects of which follow him throughout his day.

The encounter is a metaphor. It's an act of terrorism against Henry and, later, his family. The perpetrator is volatile.
Until now, Henry suddenly sees, he’s been in a fog. Astonished, even cautious, but not properly, usefully frightened. . . . The truth, now demonstrated, is that Baxter is a special case — a man who believe he has no future and is therefore free of consequences. . . . It is written. No amount of love, drugs, Bible classes or prison sentencing can cure Baxter or shift him from his course. It's spelled out in fragile proteins, but it could be carved in stone, or tempered steel.
But for all the reductive argument, Perowne can't convince himself that molecules and faulty genes alone are terrorising his family. . . Perowne himself is also responsible. He humiliated Baxter.

McEwan meditates on art. Henry doesn't read much, doesn't have time for literature, doesn't see the sense in imagining a world other than our own, but he is confronted with literature — Henry the scientist spawned a poet daughter.
So far, Daisy's reading lists have persuaded him that fiction is too humanly flawed, too sprawling and hit-and-miss to inspire uncomplicated wonder at the magnificence of human ingenuity, of the impossible dazzlingly achieved. Perhaps only music has such purity.

Science and art are, of course, windows to the same soul.
There is much in human affairs that can be accounted for at the level of the complex molecule. Who could ever reckon up the damage done to love and friendship and all hopes of happiness by a surfeit or depletion of this or that neurotransmitter? And who will ever find a morality, an ethics down among the enzymes and amino acids when the general taste is for looking in the other direction?

Schrodinger is invoked early on. Henry can't make any sense of parallel universes, but he demonstrates a sympathetic, fatalist streak: "Whatever the score, it is already chalked up."

For all his rational, clinical detachment — "He doesn't have the lyric gift to see beyond it [traffic] — he's a realist, and can never escape." — Henry commends the poet's gift of compression while grappling with the impossibility of describing the slow-motion perception of a split-second event. He's thrown off his game when "everything that's happened to him recently occurs to him at once. He's no longer in the present." He's the cat, while trying to run the experiment.

Henry recalls the biography of Darwin he's reading: "There is grandeur in this view of life."
Kindly, driven, infirm Charles in all his humility, bringing on the earthworms and planetary cycles to assist him with a farewell bow. To soften the message, he also summoned up the Creator, but his heart wasn't in it and he ditched Him in later editions. Those five hundred pages deserved only one conclusion: endless and beautiful forms of life, such as you see in a common hedgerow, including exalted beings like ourselves, arose from physical laws, from war of nature, famine and death. This is the grandeur. And a bracing kind of consolation in the brief privilege of consciousness.


Because music's been on my mind lately:
There are these rare moments when musicians together touch something sweeter than they've ever found before in rehearsals or performance, beyond the merely collaborative or technically proficient, when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing of yourself. Out in the real world there exist detailed plans, visionary projects for peaceable realms, all conflicts resolved, happiness for everyone, for ever — mirages for which people are prepared to die and kill. Christ's kingdom on earth, the workers' paradise, the ideal Islamic state. But only in music, and only on rare occasions, does the curtain actually lift on this dream of community, and it's tantalisingly conjured, before fading away with the last notes.

In the end, it's poetry that disarms the villain.

Henry dares not imagine. We dare not imagine, but we must. In literature, and in life.

Just passing through

I neglected to alert a few people of my change of address. This is how I came to fail to know of and to decline the Book-of-the-Month club's recent selections. After much delay they came to be delivered to my current address, the rerouting for parcels of which I had to pay extra postage.

I always have to open the box, just in case...

The Mermaid Chair, Sue Monk Kidd.
Yuk. Flat. Boring. Stupid.

Had I come acoss it in a bookstore, I might've read the blurbs and the flaps, decided the plot held little of interest to me, and returned it to the stack. More likely, I'd've judged it by its cover and not picked it up at all.

But as it was sitting in my house, I had to turn the pages. Even if very quickly. Now I know it's not for me.

I haven't decided if I'm grateful for the certain knowledge that this book is not worth any investment or more angry that I wasted even a little time with it.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The world is quiet here

The other week Mental Multivitamin had a few things to say about atonality and Alban Berg, with reference to a recent article excerpted as follows:

Music is both a balm for loneliness and a powerful, renewable source of meaning — meaning in time and meaning for time. The first thing music does is banish silence. Silence is at once a metaphor for loneliness and the thing itself: It's a loneliness of the senses. Music overcomes silence, replaces it. It provides us with a companion by occupying our senses — and, through our senses, our minds, our thoughts. It has, quite literally, a presence. We know that sound and touch are the only sensual stimuli that literally move us, that make parts of us move: Sound waves make the tiny hairs in our inner ears vibrate, and, if sound waves are strong enough, they can make our whole bodies vibrate. We might even say, therefore, that sound is a form of touch, and that in its own way music is able to reach out and put an arm around us.

(Does smell literally move us? Does everyone have nose hairs? Is their movement an essential component of the physiological processing of smells? Smell is powerfully evocative, but the case could be made for sound and taste. In each case, a step is taken outside of our predominantly visual world. It's a question of what you notice, what you're allowed to notice, what you're made to notice.)

A response noted that:
We have relegated music to simply an exercise in listening, and then intellectually verbalizing (for expression) what we hear.

What many of the twentieth century modernists do is to force us to go beyond intellectualizing about what we hear, to force our hearing to blend with those physical vibrations that are happening, to tap into something deeper from within our very center that we can't articulate. We can only express by moving. Or by creating something else in a physical or visceral way.

I've only skimmed the original article and the commentary it generated. I'm not currently interested in a discussion of the virtues, or lack thereof, of atonality and dissonance. It's the excerpted passage that my mind keeps returning to.

The music moves you.
"Can you feel the music?"

Is it because music is so physical that it is so emotional? That we ascribe the qualities of sound to certain experiences to convey their intensity?

An idea resonates.
It strikes a chord.
"How does that sound?"
A face or a name rings a bell.
Memories echo.

Voices, when soft music dies
Vibrate in the memory

— Shelley

I'm struck by how little music is in my life these days.

With some exceptions, I turned the stereo off and shut "music" out, rather unconsciously and I believe temporarily.

It started with the exhaustion of new motherhood. I needed to regain my ability to focus amid... everything — the spatial-visual clutter, the disorganization, the interrupted sleep. The noise of that time in my life (though all my senses were assulted). I wanted peace and quiet. (Even here, I think the "quiet" is metaphorical.)

Perhaps turning the music off was an attempt to disassociate, to stop up emotional leaks.

Of course, my world is not silent at all. I hear the whir of air conditioners, snippets of conversation passing beneath my window, hammers and saws in the distance, planes overhead. Birds. Cats.

I feel I am in tune (in tune) with my space. Tuned into it. This is something that much pop music actually prevents us from doing (opposite from what musicians of formal training aspire to).

(I wanted to research "expressions of sound as metaphor," but this wasn't a very fruitful avenue. However, here are some of the really amazing subjects to the study of which people devote their lives:
The effects of culture, environment, age, and musical training on choices of visual metaphors for sound
Modeling the effects of irrelevant speech on memory
Cross-language word segmentation by 9-month-olds
Modulating semantic feedback in visual word recognition
Foreign language knowledge can influence native language performance in exclusively native contexts

I note that I listed many topics related to language, because I studied linguistics, because a fascination with these things drew me to the study of linguistics. For a while I'd wanted to pursue Cognitive Science, but I'm too lazy, and probably not smart enough. I read Steven Pinker when I can.)

I'm discovering the music again.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

My sixth self

Words without Borders this month offers an extract from Final Stories, by Olga Tokarczuk, in which "she remembers the war, when the Soviet army occupied the eastern Polish-Ukrainian borderlands, where she and Petro lived, and deported many Poles to Siberia."

The blurb immediately catches my attention, because:
1. Out of Poland and from the Polish language, it is part of my heritage.
2. I've actually read a handful or two of representative examples of twentieth century Polish literature (both in Polish and in translation), and I like it.
3. The time and the place — it sounds like it could be my mother's story. No, not the story that this story in fact turns out to be, but in the generalness of borderlands, war, and deportation.

(Why do I search out my mother's story in cultural echoes? I don't even know the whole story, and I won't ask her. I think it pains her to tell it. It pains her that she doesn't remember it, those experiences when whe was 7, 10 years old. And it would pain her for me to ask, that I don't already know the story. Though on some level, I do. I find other stories to reinforce the family mythology I've created.)

It starts:
Every seven years you should have a repeat wedding ceremony because—so Aunt Marynka used to say — every seven years you become a different person. So you should renew every sort of contract, commitment, mortgage agreement, recorded data, and personal identification. Every kind of document.

I am already my eleventh self. Petro is his thirteenth.
I love this idea. A seven-year itch to be relieved only by shedding the skin. (I've heard of this seven-year cycle before; in fact, I take it for granted. Is it a universally held belief; is there something of a distinct Polish ethos about it; does it have mythical origins?)

By this measure, I am in the first year of my sixth self. Perhaps this is why I feel such turmoil these days, trying to come into my new self. The other transitions were natural and relatively seamless, if not entirely easy — I note them now only in retrospect, I didn't notice them at the time at all. Perhaps it is age — experience, and dare I say wisdom — that not only allows me to be conscious of the current mutation but has also granted me the capacity and the desire to control it.

"The new me." Reinventing myself? Rediscovering myself. Releasing myself.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

How I will die

How Will You Die??
created with

I will disappear and be found with my throat cut. Appropriate, somehow.
Via Geistweg.

W and Virgil

The Onion:
President Bush delighted an intimate gathering of White House dinner guests Monday, regaling the coterie of dignitaries, artists, and friends with a spirited, off-the-cuff discussion of the Roman poet Virgil's lesser-known works.

A world leader ought to know his classics, don't you think?

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

New heights will emerge

Interview with China Miéville, sexiest writer alive, about revolution, monsters ("The thing is that we love the monsters"), and Jane Eyre:

Jane Eyre is the greatest book in English. It exists at an intersection of Gothic, psychological realism and ideology-critique. It features the most searingly flawless powerful-though-disempowered protagonist I know, whose intelligence and self-possession are so extreme as to make her almost autistic in her separation from the world around her. The book contains the most important 'minor detail' in literature since the knocking at the gate in Macbeth that De Quincey wrote about, namely the scene where the baker will not let her buy a bun with her gloves, despite the gloves being worth far more than the cost of the buns, and the baker would rather *let her die* than have commodity economies so destabilised. And then it completely fucks with your expectations by ending *not* with Jane, *not* with Mr Rochester, but with fucking St John, and what's more with the *death scene* of St John, the visionary christian, thereby i) utterly destabilising the supposed 'happy ending', and ii) injecting into that ending a more ecstatic vision by far, the vision of unmediated relations with the godhead, which is the revolutionary vision, and the flipside to Jane's astonishing and gender-radical poise, making her proto-feminism a desperately poignant triumph. And other things too.

And other things too.

(Did you click the link? Is that not the sexiest interview you've ever read? He is so hot.)

The value of good writing

"It's impossible to calculate the ultimate cost of lost productivity because people have to read things two and three times."

When writing is sloppy, reading is tedious, our thinking is muddled, and communications are ineffective. The vicious circle is set in motion: sloppy writing, sloppy thinking, sloppy writing.

In public office, "I read things that were absolutely incomprehensible," Kerrey said. He shudders to think how Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, published 229 years ago Monday, would have read in standard, government-worker bureaucrat-speak.

"It would be 10 times as long, one-tenth as comprehensive, and would have lacked all inspiration," Kerrey said.

Not only have I read reams of bureacrat-speak in my lifetime, in the seven years I spent in the government's employ I was encouraged to write it too. I left to pursue a career in editing.

(Even Jefferson's work was edited.)

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Her mother's daughter

Helena spreads her beach towel out on the floor in the hallway and invites me to — nay, insists that I — sit on one of the many towel fish. She sits at the head of the towel and announces that she will tell us (for I sit among her invisible "amis") a story. She draws a book from the shelf, holding it up carefully so we can all see the picture. She is going to tell us the story of "Bootsie Bootsie. The little girl a peur parce qu'il y a dinosaur. Rawr."

Small talk
J-F (to me): What's this book about? Any good?
Helena (to J-F): C'est pas ton livre. That's Mama's book!
J-F: I was just asking about it... I wasn't going to take it.
Helena: C'est le livre a Mama. Pour la salle de bain.

(For those of you who don't speak French, essentially, "That's mom's bathroom reading.")

Helena scurries about, notes that she "forgot" her book, picks one seemingly at random off the shelf, and is reluctant to part with it throughout bath preparations. Finally, she sets it very carefully on the counter, away from the bath, telling me she does so because she doesn't want it to fall in the water.

Helena requests a reading of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (The book of last summer.) I oblige. I usually drop the book on the bedside table when we finish; she won't let me — she wants to hang on to it and hugs it tight. Lights out. Good night. Minutes later, I hear her little voice booming out from her room. She recites the book in its entirety. Accurately. Twice.

My worries were unfounded. All in her own time, in her own space.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Because it's Friday

and I've only just gotten 'round to uploading photos of recent weeks, and I love this picture.

Christmas in June

(Yes, I know it's July already, but I'm talking about yesterday.)

The job that's been keeping me crazy the last few weeks is still not done.

And with commitments outstanding, it certainly wouldn't do to be seen having fun. Or blogging.

I feel like a school-girl, avoiding the teacher, ducking out of class early, because she hasn't completed the assignment. Not that I'd know too much about that, but I know a little, having always thought: better perfect and a little late than just plain substandard. (Similarly, if it's worth doing at all, it's worth doing right, which makes so many tasks so overwhelmingly ominous, it's no wonder so few things around the house ever get started.) Of course, this philosophy has not served me particularly well, and it really shouldn't be encouraged among people who work in a deadline-driven industry.

Where was I? Ah, yes. Crazy.

Yesterday, Helena's daycare headed out to Santa's summer residence for the day. J-F and I had signed on board to accompany the hordes.

(To the annoyance of many women, Svelte Mommy strips down to a bikini moments after stepping into the grounds. It is a small consolation that Svelte Mommy goes home with Problem Child.)

I find the Christmas concept a little strange, but much fun was had by all the toddlers, particularly in the bouncy tent (we have got to find ourselves one of those in town).

Helena with daycare buddy Xavier.

Helena had been talking about Père Noel all day though, and it didn't seem right to have come all that way (maybe an hour out of town) and not pay him a visit. So we joined the line that trailed up to his cabin. As we neared the door, Helena admitted she didn't like Santa Claus — he scares her. Which is not an altogether unhealthy attitude for a two-year-old to take toward a big, smelly, overly friendly old man. We did have an audience with the guy, and he did his best to assuage her fears, Helena clinging to my neck the whole time. But she graciously accepted and genuinely appreciated the notebook he gave her, was polite, even friendly, with her "merci"s and "buh-bye"s.

We rounded out the day with ice cream cones around the corner from home. Helena decided she liked my strawberry cone better than her vanilla, and so a vast world of ice cream flavours has opened up to her that she is eager to explore.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.