Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Places I've lived

In the 18 years (almost exactly) since I was almost 18 years old, I've had 12 addresses.

1. University residence. The 9th floor, or maybe the 10th. My roommate arrived in the middle of the night. After depositing her stuff, she and her mom sat on the floor and drank beer. Heather negotiated a trade a few weeks later, scoring a much cooler roommate than myself. And so Nikki moved in. Nikki slept with her oboe.

Some floormates were good as friends for a couple years, some longer, as study buddies or clubbing partners. But for 8 months we were sucked into each others lives and, ultimately, looked out for each other.

2. The other, apartment-style residence on campus, for the summer. These were real roommates, real people who didn't go "home" for the summer, working at real jobs to support themselves, maybe taking a course. Desperate to be one of those people, I took a job at a bakery, and brought home bags of bread and croissants at the end of the day, thereby gaining acceptance into the household.

3. The rooming house. A huge, old stone mansion, housing about 20 people, mostly students. Ed Broadbent lived on the corner — we'd see him mowing his lawn.

Every morning Mark's stereo down the hall would blare Depeche Mode — my cue to put the kettle on for tea. We talked, and talked, and talked. I miss him.

Al, was the oldest in the house, pushing 50, living next door to me. He was a fixture, a big tough guy — don't get on the wrong side of Al — and on welfare. He borrowed money from time to time. Al still owes me a 100 bucks.

This is the house I lived in when I first fell in love. I mean truly, deeply in love. He flicked pebbles at my second-story window to announce himself. This is also where my heart was broken.

4. My first bachelor apartment. In the basement of a family home of old-world Italians who grew tomatoes and grapes in their frontyard — a fairly striking feature in this part of town (not Little Italy). Bags of fresh tomatoes. Near Christmas, a couple bottles of potent "wine," which seemed decent compensation for the stench I'd endured post-harvest.

Conveniently between campus and the market, around the corner from the cinema and old Zaphod's. Windows at toe-tapping height. This is the place where people came at all hours to pour out there hearts, bare their souls, listen to Ella and Billie.

5. A real apartment, shared with a good friend, even though everybody told us it wasn't such a hot idea moving in with a friend. It wasn't such a hot idea. But we're grown-ups now, and better for it. She had furniture and a cat.

That summer I worked nights at an animation studio, loving my walks to and fro through Chinatown.

6. Another bachelor apartment, but one that was designed as such, not simply someone's extra, converted space. A dead-end street.

Small. Two guests at a time was crowded. Small. There was no other way but to sit on the toilet sidesaddle.

The light fixture pulled away from the closet ceiling and sparked, resulting in the largest ever gathering of guests (all firemen) between these walls at one time. The hole in the closet ceiling was never fixed. Through this hole, the bat made its entry. The first time, he scared me silly. I eventually named him (Clive).

I lived here for years. This is where I lived when I went to Paris the first time, for a weekend. This is where the travel bug infected me. From this apartment, I saw wondrous pieces of the world.

7. I gave up that apartment because I was going away for the summer. It seemed silly to pay rent for months I wouldn't be there. I moved all my crap to my sister's place, where I stayed for a little more than half a year, causing her a lot of inconvenience, if not grief, misery, and embarrassment. I was a little lost.

8. A one-bedroom apartment on another dead-end street.

The one with the pink and purple kitchen. On Perkins. Provoking p-based pleasantries with pals in pubs, prior to Princess Prunella's publication (permit us to put Peggy's proboscis in its place).

Got a cat. I was daunted by the responsibility of being a pet-owner, but a friend thrust him upon me. I'm glad he did. Calvino walked me to the busstop when I left for work and met me halfway down the street when I came home. Little children asked if the big black panther belonged to me. Calvino was king of that street. He brought mice and sparrows to my doorstep.

Eventually got a boyfriend (almost exactly 9 years ago) who moved in after a couple months.

9. Our first apartment together, which ironically was smaller than the previous place. The "coachhouse" — the old barn out back. Winding staircase, mezzanine. A bathroom too small for a tub.

This is where I said goodbye to my career as a civil servant, found the strength and courage to start to know and follow my heart's desire. This is where I learned to love, really love.

10. Conceivably an apartment of the kind grown-ups live in. Dishwasher! A balcony that inspired great conversation and secrets (to forget the view, perhaps). Got another cat.

Joseph the mailman lived on the third floor, but spent an inordinate amount of time in the laundry room. Joseph knew everything about everyone. Directly upstairs from us lived Stompy. Stompy liked sex, a lot.

This is where our respective families met each other. This is where Helena was conceived, tho' we didn't know it till after we'd left.

11. Montreal. Known from the start to be the transition apartment, easing our way into a new city, a new life. Centrally located. Across from the park. With the great windows: fabulous light and infernal heat. A drug-dealer downstairs; he always held the door for me. The building owned by two now-warring Portuguese families.

The pregnancy test. The home Helena was born into. So many of her firsts.

12. Current address. Owners.

As much as I hate moving, and for all the promises that this would be it — a place we own, we would never have to move again — I know this is not the case, I know this is not our forever house. Still, there are pictures on the walls now, curtains. It's good to be home.

Monday, August 29, 2005

On freelancing

Chris Rodell on the palatial prison he has constructed around himself, at MobyLives:
I never have an okay day. My professional elevator only stops at two floors: despair and euphoria. An editor will call me for a 2,500–word assignment that pays $1.50 a word. I am overjoyed. It's a big job. Then I am instantly crestfallen because I realize I'll have to write it.

I type the first $1.50 word and pause to stare at it. It's "The." I realize I've just typed a draft beer. I calculate a sentence equals a steak dinner, a party a paragraph. You see, besides being lazy, I'm easily distracted, another career killer for duties that require discipline.

(Yes, I should be working right now. Or paying some bills.)

Clearing the slate

I'm feeling blocked. I have a lot to say, to share, to vent, to dump, but this mass of tangled extension cords isn't showing any viable ends to pull at.

There are tens of things I've started to write and never finished. I've collected links, quotations, commentaries, skeletons of ideas. In an effort to shake the debris out of my head, this week (and maybe next) I'm culling, purging, editing, if not entirely finishing, some of my drafted thoughts.

In February I read something somewhere about The DaVinci Code, leading me on an Internet trail about Templars, noting how stories about Templars bring out the lunatics (or maybe the lunatic in all of us). I promised myself to reread (and, this time, to understand) Foucault's Pendulum (not yet attempted).

Umberto Eco on cultural anthropology.

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

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

Armchair historian

The other night we watched the 20/20 report on "Summer of the Vampire," although I think that's a pretty bold claim to make on the basis of only one, if bestselling, novel. The report gave an overview of the vampire legend and its appearance in books and film, framed by snippets of interview with Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian (excerpt).

I've been intrigued by this novel, but am much less so now. The book has been praised for its meticulous research, yet Kostova never made it to the site of Vlad Tepes' grave (till now). The derision of the Romanian guides when they call her an "armchair historian" is marked.

She may have a genius for evoking places, but she does so through words based in and more authentically evoked by history, legend, image, not experience.

(I can't imagine writing about someplace I'd never been, unless it were wholly imaginary.)


Robert Collins lists his top 10 dystopias in The Guardian: "re-inventing the present is sometimes the only way to see how bad things already are."

I've read 6 of them (yes, Auster is on the list), and am familiar with a 7th (Planet of the Apes) via its film incarnations.

In university, my very favourite course was the one on utopian but primarily dystopian literature. Our reading list (with wikipedia links for overviews):

Utopia, Thomas More (1516) (text available online)

Erewhon, Samuel Butler (1872) (text)

Looking Backward: 2000-1887, Edward Bellamy (1887) (text)

News from Nowhere, William Morris (1891) (text)

Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915) (text)

We, Eugene Zamiatin (1920)

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)

1984, George Orwell (1949) (text)

The Dispossesed, Ursula K LeGuin (1974) (I never made it through this one; in truth, I barely got started.)

Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy (1976)

The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five, Doris Lessing (1980)

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)

Of these, We was my favourite, for doing what I'd been unable to do at university, combine math and literature. Bellamy interested me for the detail of his vision (communal umbrellas deployed over sidewalks at the first hint of rain). The course also introduced me to the work of Doris Lessing, which inspired... something.

Why do I love a good dystopia, book or film, so much? I've always been prone to catastrophizing, imagining worst cases. I need to know all possible consequences.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


More often than not over the last month, when Helena is tucked into bed she tells me, "Pas une histoire, Mama. Bonne nuit." I may have to establish storytime at some other time of day.

Some fascinating research is discussed at Collision Detection, and it happens to be remarkably relevant to weird stuff Helena does.

The experiments started after witnessing behaviour I've seen for myself, and puzzled over, in Helena: exploring and attempting to interact with pictures of objects as if they were the objects themselves.
The confusion seems to be conceptual, not perceptual. Infants can perfectly well perceive the difference between objects and pictures. Given a choice between the two, infants choose the real thing. But they do not yet fully understand what pictures are and how they differ from the things depicted (the "referents") and so they explore: some actually lean over and put their lips on the nipple in a photograph of a bottle, for instance. They only do so, however, when the depicted object is highly similar to the object it represents, as in color photographs.

(Helena has done this with less-than-realistic pictoral representations — perhaps a more intensive exploration of the relationship between it and the referent. Huge philosophical implications are likely also being considered: when does the cat picture, in all its petting-worthiness, stop representing a cat? when it's not furry? when it's purple? when it has no legs? when it's a stick cat? when it's stretched unbelievably long? Humour starts here too — to delight in the unusual, one must know what is normal and expected first. She continues to "play" with pictures, to enter into them, but with a wink and a smile — she's in on the secret now.)

A subsequent experiment is summarized nicely at Collision Detection:
When teachers try to show kids subtraction or addition, they typically use objects — like coins, sticks, whatever — to represent quantities. But DeLoache suspects many children cannot easily yet separate the symbolic nature of numbers — the "threeness" of a trio of apples, for example — from the actual objects themselves. In an even more mindblowing experiment, she taught two groups of six-and-seven-year-old kids to do subtraction problems that involve borrowing, a rather sophisticated concept. One group of kids was taught using pencil and paper; the other was taught using blocks. Both groups learned the concept, but the kids with blocks took three times longer. Why? Because learning the concept with pencil and paper requires the kids to immediately interact with abstract symbolic concepts. The kids working with blocks, paradoxically, had to do more mental work — since they had to separate the concept of numbers from the blocks they were working with.

A girl who used the blocks offered some advice to the researchers after the study: "Have you ever thought of teaching kids to do these with paper and pencil? It's a lot easier."

Helena is definitely better at counting off the top of her head than at counting objects. This has improved significantly over recent weeks, but counting with objects is considerably slower.

Last week, my sister gave Helena a couple of amazing jigsaw puzzles she's brought back from Bishkek recently, and we're proud to note they're made in Poland.

This one has 20 pieces. The pieces are bigger than my hand. I love that the edges aren't straight, but follow the line of the treetop. (The other puzzle has a few hundred pieces and will have to wait a while.)

Helena's 12-piece puzzle was no longer a challenge for her, so just before we went away I got her a 24-piece puzzle featuring Dora the Explorer. I've seen her complete it on her own, but she still still struggles with it, as well as with the above "Bambi" picture.

We're still working on figuring out clues as to what piece goes where. What doesn't work: suggesting to Helena that she look at the picture on the box. Just as the above-mentioned research would indicate, Helena has trouble mapping.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Balancing the essential and the superfluous

Opening line:
The telephone rang, and she knew she was going to die.

It ends for our heroine in a gunfight, a mad dash, and a craving for a cigarette.

I admit that, though I've been enjoying Arturo Pérez-Reverte's "literary mysteries" (whatever that means) for over a decade now, I had little interest in picking up The Queen of the South. I received the hardcover as a gift many, many months ago, but simply didn't care to read a fictional biography of a drug smuggler. Then I opened it.

Of course, it takes a long time to die. "It takes time to lose a life"; "So you die little by little for hours, and days, and years. A long death... But the more you think and the more you live, the more you die"; "Dying takes time" — we are reminded often.

The many years of Teresa Mendoza's (metaphorical) dying are being investigated by a journalist. He meets with her just once, at the beginning of the novel but at the end of the story, to establish and understand the facts of The Situation that set her adventure in motion, for the purpose of his writing a book or a film. The woman he met would never be real — sitting before him was the legend of her, in part created by him.

One review dwells on a structural problem — how can the narrator journalist know the heroine's intimate moments and innermost thoughts? Though I noticed this dissonance early on, I easily forgave it, chalking it up to the journalist's sense of romance, his fictionalization of events and admitted creative reconstruction — this is how we make legends, after all.

After being one drug smuggler's girl, then that of another, Teresa ends up in prison and makes an influential friend. She's never read a book in her life, till now. The Count of Monte Cristo.
"Books are doors that lead out into the street," Patricia would tell her. "You learn from them, educate yourself, travel, dream, imagine, live other lives, multiply your own life a thousand times. Where can you get more for you money, Mexicanita? And they also keep all sorts of bad things at bay: ghosts, loneliness, shit like that. Sometimes I wonder how you people that don't read figure out how to live your lives."

Naturally, after prison, Teresa and Patricia seek out a secret treasure, and Teresa's life begins anew. This time, she's in charge.

(Pérez-Reverte loves books. In particular, he loves Dumas. The homage paid him in The Club Dumas is obvious, and I'm told his Alatriste series of books in unabashedly, swashbucklingly musketeer-like. It's no accident either that after finishing this novel, I moved on to Dumas myself.)

Romance, adventure, honour, revenge. Dying.
How long do you last and what do you achieve while you last? Which is why everything that helps you survive is essential. The rest is superfluous. Disposable, Tesa. In my work, as in yours, you have to move within the simple margins of those two words. Essential. Superfluous. Understand?... And the second of those words includes the lives of other people.

Teresa's motivation? "More than cold-blooded calculation, ambition, or thirst for revenge" — Alvarez nodded... — "I think it was a sense of symmetry."

Amid his reconstruction of the queen's life, in one of many interludes, our narrator journalist meets up with an old friend, a gossip columnist, who reminds us: "Then there's the mystery, right?.... What happened with all of them?" So this is a mystery book after all. There is also the mystery (though I'd forgotten about it by now) of precisely what happened in the hours after that death-announcing phone call.

(I've never been satisfied with how Pérez-Reverte resolves his traditional mysteries. This book delivers in part because, not being a traditional mystery, it avoids the problem of wrapping things up too neatly (or vaguely, or unfairly), while exercising what he's mastered — the pacing, "clue"-dropping, suspense-building of the genre.)

Teresa is an incredibly sympathetic and believable woman. The way she works, the way she loves. The way she is raped. The way she dresses. The way she dissociates from herself, watching herself — checking herself — in disagreeable situations. The way she calculates. She evolves and transforms.

Reading, she'd learned in prison, especially novels, allowed her to inhabit her mind in a new way — as though by blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction, she might witness her own life as if it were happening to somebody else. Besides, teaching her things, reading helped her think differently, or think better.

"She had discovered that all the books in the world were about her."

Teresa's favourite book: Pedro Paramo.
The phrase (from an unnamed book) that impressed her most: The only salvation of the conquered is to expect no salvation.

This brief review is right on the mark:
Pérez-Reverte understands that the glamour of the narcosmuggler is rooted in the codes of revenge and honor that the futureless poor of all countries hold dear. He has Teresa clinging to that code as she returns to Mexico to face the killers of her first love in an unforgettable showdown that cements the Queen's legend in a country whose corridos — musical poems glorifying the underdog — have long championed lawless rebels.

The Queen of the South is audacious, and its heroine uncommon, but it is Pérez-Reverte's pace, unhurried and unforced, and his superb attention to detail, that makes the Spanish novelist's sixth book so mesmerizing. The Queen of the South is that rare blessing — a book by a mature writer at the top of his game, unwilling to settle for less than his best.

The Guardian:
The only force that prevents all this hard-nosed machismo from collapsing into psychopathic anarchy is its own internal honour code. "When you live crooked," a Mexican hitman soberly informs the narrator at a barbecue, "you've gotta work straight." Break your word to your fellow narcos, like Teresa's deceased pilot boyfriend, and you'll be eating lead for lunch. Although their argot is pure hispanic tough-guy talk, and their scores are settled with guns rather than swords, Mexican and Spanish narcomafiosi are ruled by a sense of obligation and loyalty every bit as powerful as that which governs the Three Musketeers. Pérez-Reverte can run from the 17th century, it seems, but he can't hide.

If you like adventure stories, read this book.

Monday, August 22, 2005


We're back. Tired, but mostly happy.

Helena had 1 bout of motion sickness at about the 4-hour mark the way there, entailing an unscheduled stop in the middle of nowhere to clean up and change clothes. This seems to happen regularly on long car trips. Helena doesn't seem to mind much — in fact, she seems quite relieved after vomiting — it's the mess of it that troubles her. She was telling the story of it for days afterward.

Number of times Helena asked "Ou est la maison a Babcia?" (a kind of "are we there yet?") on the way there: irritatingly high.

Carousel rides: 1, but it was spectacular. (More on this to come.)

Haircuts: 2
1 for my mom, and 1 for the kid. My mom sat still and didn't cry or kick anyone, but somehow the kid got 2 lollipops (mom didn't get any). And her bangs are still crooked.

Pedicures: 2
1 for my sister, and 1 for me, courtesy of my sister (bringing my lifetime pedicure count to 3, or maybe 4). (Thanks, Ivonna!)
Number of times Helena stomped on my toes within seconds of my emerging from pedicure: 2, even though the polish was completely smudged after the first try.

1 daytrip to Toronto to visit an aunt and a cousin.
1 mother throwing up in the car on the way home.

Diapers changed by my mother in the middle of the night, necessitated by Helena's disrupted food and sleep routine and the ensuing copious milk consumption at bedtime: 1 (bringing the grand total over Helena's lifetime to 2).
Bedtime diapers applied by my sister: half (will she make it on the board before Helena is completely toilet-trained?).
Accidents of a peeing nature (by Helena): just 1, but in a mall and while in my arms, thus completely soaking the left side of my shirt and pants and my left shoe.

Number of times Helena sings out "Mama!" in a day: at least 100, by my mother's count.

Noteworthy consumption (by me):
Dozens of pierogi.
Suicide-hot Buffalo wings. Honestly, the closer you are to Buffalo, the better they are.
5 cigarettes, after very long days.

Purchases for me:
1 pair of sandals.
3 books (discount outlet).
1 pyjama.

Purchases for the kid, notably in the shoe category:
1 pair cheap sandals (cuz her other cheap sandals broke), which turned out to be too big.
1 pair cheap sparkly, spangly slippers, cuz she liked the ones my mom gave me so much I figured she should have some in a size she can kind of wear without breaking her neck in them.
1 pair incredibly expensive (well, relatively) but fashionable running shoes, cleverly displayed instore among several more reasonably sale-priced but far less attractive (to Helena) and apparently less comfortable options.

Other purchases and gifts for Helena: countless.

Pages read: about 100.

Movies watched in their entirety: 1, even though I thought it was stupid and boring (by which I mean it had nothing inspired or the least bit original to say about the concept of honour, nor was it told in an original way, and I'm disappointed because I wanted to like it but couldn't), but everyone else really liked it.

Frustrations: many.
Maybe for me to express in days to come, or perhaps just to roll into a ball to bury deep in a pit in my stomach.
It seems every trip "home" sees me struggling with family dynamics, roles, traditions. The realization that you can never go home again.
It highlights to me how different things are — the times, but also individual styles — between my raising Helena and my mom's raising me (let alone her raising my brother and sister some dozen years before I came along). How I feel judged exteriorly, and feel interiorly inadequate.
Saddest of all is that the integration of J-F and my family has not improved over the years, yet is doesn't feel complete.

It's good to be home.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Gone a-visiting

Back on or about August 23.

Don't expect to hear from me before then, cuz where I'm going, I don't think they have the Internet.

Any spare time I have I'll be spending reading The Man in the Iron Mask. I love musketeers!

Friday, August 12, 2005


I am so bored! Not at this very minute, actually, as I've just had the better (read: bigger) part of a bottle of wine (oh, maybe a whole bottle) and scintillating conversation on the terrace. I mean generally, in life, or at least this week.

Mostly, I'm working hard, and procrastinating harder, and denying myself all worldly and blogly pleasures because I should be punished for not working hard enough.

Saturday we leave to visit my mom for a week or so.

Until then, I'm feeling the pressure of work! and bills to pay! and laundry! and the novel I have to finish reading cuz I'll be damned if I have to carry it with me for hundreds of miles for just the final 20 pages! and sandals I need to buy cuz my old ones are broken and they hurt! and some new diversion for Helena to reward her for sitting quietly in a moving vehicle for 7 or 8 hours (which will also showcase her brilliance in front of family)! and maybe I should get a belated birthday present for my mom! and I have to send my resume out for that perfect job!

And the pressure of blogging! How uninspired I feel. And just look at the drafts of brilliant things I have, just sitting there, waiting 'til the time is ripe! And all those notes on The Golden Notebook — as scared as I was to read the damn thing, I'm even more scared of committing to saying anything about it. Though it will happen someday, cuz it needs to come out. Really. Just not before Saturday, probably.

Fuck this. I'm going to go finish that novel.

I hope I have important things to tell you before I go. Or at least on my return.

That is, apart from about how Helena elaborates her plans for the day and then grips my face between her hands, "Tu as compris, Mama?"

How we're trying to establish the habit of a walk after supper before bedtime. How yesterday it was just me and Helena, in the rain, and she kept insisting "hode ma han" and we traded umbrellas so I had a tiny ladybug over my head while a vast expanse of shadow loomed over hers, and I am completely head over heels for her.

And how do I explain to my mom that no, I don't speak much Polish to the child — she barely speaks English as it is.

Where'd my wine go? Right. As you were.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

My future self when she travels back in time will not disrupt the path of my present self

Apparently, the laws of physics do permit time travel. There's a lot of paradoxes to grapple with, but a recent paper proposes a model in which they "may be ruled out by the weirdness inherent in laws of quantum physics," as summarized at NewScientist.com:

"If you travel into the past quantum mechanically, you would only see those alternatives consistent with the world you left behind you."


(But wait. Will I be able to act at all, or simply observe? If I'm travelling back to where the quantum waves recombine, will there be two of me, or will I be my past self? I need a nap.)

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Things that astound me

That, when we were browsing in a nearby French chain bookstore, there should be a prominent display table featuring the latest releases in philosophy.

That the local fruiterie offers free delivery, and I wonder what kind of people take advantage of this service, wanting a crate of mango and a case of olive oil delivered up to their fourth floor walk-up. In addition to fruits and vegetables, they have a small selection of coffee and gourmet cheeses (and the aforementioned olive oil). I imagine there is a little old lady who lives around the corner from me who every day phones them up for an apple and a potato, with maybe a bit of Emmenthal on Fridays.

That well over 100 people in the last 48 hours have arrived here via internet search results for "What Russian literary figure do some people believe to be almost as unfortunate as the Baudelaire orphans?" How many unfortunate Russian literary figures are there to choose from? They must be very disappointed that I don't tell them it's Anna Karenina, that slut, but who could blame her, and really the whole incident with the train was very tragic. But Violet, Klaus, and Sunny really have it hard.

That somebody needs to know "where book nerds hang out," though I'm actually rather flattered that this little blog might appear as an answer to them.

Editors: ghosts in the machine

Blake Morrison writes about the value of editors in The Guardian:

There are, of course, many different kinds of editor — from fact-checkers and OKers (as they're known at the New Yorker), to line-editors and copy editors, to editors who grasp the big picture but skip the detail. But in popular mythology they're lumped together as bullyboys, bouncers or, to quote Nabokov again, "pompous avuncular brutes".

It's a wonderful essay, replete with examples from DH Lawrence, TS Eliot, and F Scott Fitzgerald. These are the reasons why I wanted to be an editor, to shape literature but also writers and readers. There is an editor's life perhaps a little more meaningful than the one where I ease the dissemination of research on the latest radiographic technology. (Important, sure, but not very Romantic.)

When people speak of writer's block, they think of the writer stalled over a blank page, or of throwing scrunched-up bits of paper — false starts — into a wastebin. But there's another kind of block, which is structural, when you've written tens of thousands of words, but can't figure out which are superfluous and what goes where. Something's wrong, but you don't know what it is, and that can make you pretty desperate, so that if some new acquaintance rashly expresses an interest in what you've written, as happens to the Californian wine buff and would-be published author Miles in Alexander Payne's recent film Sideways, you foist your typescript on them, which in Miles's case means retrieving from the back seat of his car not one whacking heap of pages but two, and even though you know this will a) place the recipient in an awkward situation b) sprain his or her back and/or c) ruin a beautiful friendship, still, you do it anyway, because you're desperate.

And that's why editors matter, not as butchers and barbers, but because what's wrong with a book can be something the author has repressed all knowledge of, something glaringly obvious which, the moment an editor or other reader identifies it, you think yes, of course, Eureka, and then you go back and fix it. Editing might be a bloody trade. But knives aren't the exclusive property of butchers. Surgeons use them too.

Writers, editors, readers: take heed.

But think for a moment of another kind of culture, where nothing is edited. A culture where we're all so logorrheaic we haven't time for each other's words or books or blogs, where everything goes into the ether — and there's no sign that anyone reads it all. A culture that doesn't care about editing is a culture that doesn't care about writing. And that has to be bad.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Memos from various departments

Department of Isabella
For some time now I have been indexing the books I read, mostly because it makes it easier for me to count, and I derive a great deal of satisfaction from knowing that I'm averaging about 2, or whatever, books a month, and it helps put into perspective the occasional hellish midnight-oil deadline crunchers and the needy and exhausting demands the toddler, the toddler's father, and the cats put on me, reassuring me that yes in fact I do achieve some sort of balance in my life. And because I'm kind of anal that way. So anal that I thought I'd extend that sort of catalogue to the children's books in our life.


I think of these blog sites as lists, handy index-like link repositories, nothing like the "traditional" journal or newsy styles I've come to associate with blogs. But this week for the first time, I wrote something there that I didn't mention here. I expressed an opinion on a book. And that opinion is pretty unimportant, in the grand scheme of things but also to me personally. I don't care. About the book, or about the opinion I have of it. It's just some book I read.

So why mention it at all, anywhere? So I read books I don't talk about here. It's not often that happens, admittedly. Usually a book will have some impact on my life, even if only of the sort that it meant I stayed up late so it made for a grumpy-tired next day or I feel I wasted my time, which makes for a grumpy-angry next day.

What has me bothered is the idea of compartmentalizing. And that I feel the urge to compartmentalize at this point in time. Ironic, that this urge should develop after having read The Golden Notebook, in which the compartmentalizing of events and histories and ideas into different coloured notebooks is shown to be symptomatic of breakdown. It is the golden notebook that unifies, integrates the aspects into the whole, becomes something greater than the sum of its parts. Odd, too, because I've always considered myself a pretty "together" person.

How does one categorize things? At what level of detail? Too specific and you wind up with so many categories as to render them useless. Too general and contents tend to get misfiled and lost, change shape over time.

As for blogging philosophy, I figure it's all me. How could I possibly separate the kid from the books from the walk in the park from remembering that time in that bistro 11 years ago from that news item sticking in my head. (The exception, maybe, is the love, the relationship, discussion of which in anything but the broadest of terms is simply off limits. Because it's none of your business.)

Umm, ya. I have no idea where this train of thought is going.

I've read a couple books recently that did nothing for me but help pleasantly while away a few hours.

I've been wanting to say how little television I've been watching since we moved. How this home has a great reading spot, and another great reading spot, and another, and the television is not in the middle of everything. But I must give some credit to the fact that summertime TV programming is crap and the other fact that I've been busy working.

And then I must confess that I am compelled to watch Rockstar: INXS, even though the thought of it turns my stomach. The premise, to audition wannabes for an existing, if washed up, rock band would be fine, if it weren't for the fact they're to replace a guy who hanged himself. I just think it's in poor taste. But I watch it anyway.

J-F and I have considered some ways to improve Rockstar: INXS.
1. All contestants must undergo psychiatric analysis to ensure a rockstar mentality.
2. Supply a fresh album title and cover concept.
3. Provide a list of backstage demands (a la cheesburgers with Dom Perignon).
4. A general knowledge and history of rock and roll component.
5. Essay: the greatest rock song ever.
6. Hotel-room-trashing competition.
7. Insult-hurling competition.
8. Drinking games!

"Both the title of upcoming Book the Twelfth in A Series of Unfortunate Events and Mr. Snicket himself have been reported missing, unknown, or both." Official investigation is underway.

Oh, and also, she's back!: "Bridget Jones returns tomorrow, indomitable, wise, yearning, optimistic, poised and just a teeny bit sloshed."

See? That was all pretty disjointed.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The things she says and does

Because I don't want ever to forget any of Helena's two-and-a-half-year-old charms.

(Excuse my French. I'm trying to replicate her toddler speak, in addition to which I make my own grammatical mistakes. When she addresses me in French, I often find that even just moments later I'm unable to recall her precise words, as I've already translated them in my head.)

When counting or listing things, Helena asks me "Tu veux en français or in English?"

Last week, out of the blue, she says to me, "Tu s'appeles Mommy," saying "Mommy" with big lazy English vowels. She's never called me "Mommy."

She's learning our actual names: "Ja-Fwafwa Fourmi" and "Zabibella Kratiskititi." Eh, close enough.

I thought she should know her surname, in case — God forbid — she gets lost or something. The poor thing is hyphenated, but she's been choosing to identify herself as a "Kratiskititi," "comme toi, Mama!"

To me: "Apres vous madame Mama."
To J-F: "Apres vous madame Papa."

Sitting by the pool this weekend, "1, 2, 3, enleve ton chandail, Mama." ("Take off your shirt.")

The way she cups her face in her hands, when she stops to remember something. My mom does that. I do that too.

"Tous mes choses," as she gathers her things about her, blanket, pillow, teddybear, book. There's delight and pride in her face.

"Touches pas!" Not because she doesn't want to share, but because she's in the middle of executing a very complicated plan that cannot be interrupted.

She runs out of imaginary food when she's hosting a tea party. (How can you run out of imaginary food?) She accuses me of swiping imaginary food off her plate.

She favours vanilla and strawberry ice cream over chocolate.

I've coached her in solving jigsaw puzzles: "What about if we try this other piece on the edge — look, the colours are similar." The way she puzzles through on her own now: "What about... ici!"

Yesterday morning was the first morning I've been woken by the pitter-patter of little feet approaching my bed, looking to climb in. She still prefers to be retrieved from her bed in the morning.

The way she says "oui, oui" and "non, non" so sweetly, to emphasize my silliness in questioning the obvious.

The way she thinks really, really, really hard about choosing one of the outfits I offer for her to wear.

How, when we go to the park, she wants me to sit in the swing, she wants to push.

She has an imaginary horse (the size of a small dog) in her bedroom. There's an imaginary photo of her imaginary horse hanging on the wall.

The way everything must stop when she hears church bells in the distance. ("Ecoute! Les ding-dongs!") Or when they're close by (just down the street) and she must out-peal them: "Ding-dong! Ding-dong!" at the top of her lungs. I love bells.

Playing hide and seek with the sun: "Le soleil cache dans les nuages! Kookoo, soleil!"

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Last things

I've been wanting to read In the Country of Last Things, by Paul Auster, for a long time because:

1. I've liked (loved!) everything I've read of Auster's work, and it seems to me I haven't read nearly enough.
2. I have a crush on Paul Auster.
3. This book is his favourite, I learned last year, though by "favourite" it is not clear whether he means most personal, most ambitious or challenging, of which he's most proud or sentimental.

The country is a dystopia, reported on in a traditional manner. The book takes the form of Anna Blume's letter to home. She left for this place when she 19 years old to look for her older brother (she never finds him). We do not know if her notebook ever reached the hands it was intended for or how (if) it came to be found.

The prose is spare, at times perhaps even immature, but it lends some authenticity to the young narrator and how she views this world.

J-F has read the opening pages and says it's a rip-off of Soylent Green. I'm more familiar with Soylent Green through its reputation than I have memory of actual first-hand knowledge of it, so let's just trust J-F on this and counter, "So what?"

Runners, leapers, assassination clubs. Euthanasia clinics. Transformation centres, converting dead bodies into fuel, and later we encounter one of the human slaughterhouses rumored to exist.

To start, Anna describes this place and its conditions — the climate, the people and their occupations, thebureaucraticc processes — before recounting her personal journey, which ultimately doesn't cover much physical ground. The people are generally bound, economically and by governmental controls, to the zones of the city — undoubtedly New York.

It seems to me that it's not that the gulf between the rich and the poor has widened so much as the numbers comprising these populations have been redistributed — almost everyone is impoverished, if not homeless. Many live in subway terminals. She describes the underground "societies," the scavenging. She finds Quinn's passport (lost in City of Glass).

Things (people?) in themselves apart from their function or purpose:
It is an odd thing, I believe, to be constantly looking down at the ground, always searching for broken and discarded things. After a while, it must surely affect the brain. For nothing is really itself anymore. There are pieces of this and pieces of that, but none of it fits together. And yet, very strangely, at the limit of all this chaos, everything begins to fuse again.

The story as a dystopia was a little disappointing (but having had a few days to think about it now I rather respect Auster's commentary on economics and sustainability, though I still don't think that's what the book's about) — we never learn how this place came to be so bleak ("it takes a long time for a world to vanish"), suspicious because the narrator's own reference point is a life that sounds much like ours. We know only that the government changes often enough to prevent anything from being accomplished. We hear about "the rich," but we do not know where or how they live, if they exist at all.

Anna near the beginning refers to herself as a squeamish little rich girl. Some of the citizens "turn themselves into grotesque parodies of the prosperous and well-fed." And there is a pastry shop. Some people among the vast dispossessed population must still recognize that there is (or was) another way to live.

"In order to live, you must make yourself die."

Under one government's policy of tolerance, scholars and writers, then religious groups and journalists, were housed in public buildings such as, fittingly, libraries. But the systematization of the library has been disrupted. "When you consider that there were seven floors of stacks, to say that a book was in the wrong place was as much to say that it had ceased to exist." The subsidy cuts academics off from the world while skewing their perception of reality. (Later we hear that the Library burned to the ground.)

Anna's story, her personal relationships and attachments, is slim and inconsequential. The novel is another of Auster's games, a reflection on memory and its impermanence and "the language of ghosts."

What about an airplane? I said. What's an airplane? he asked, smiling at me in a puzzled sort of way, as though I had just told a joke he didn't understand. An airplane, I said. A machine that flies through the air and carries people from one place to another. That's ridiculous, he said, giving me a suspicious kind of look. There's no such thing. It's impossible. Don't you remember? I asked. I don't know what you're talking about, he said. You could get into trouble for spreading that kind of nonsense. The government doesn't like it when people make up stories. It's bad for morale.
You see what you are up against here. It's not just that things vanish — but once they vanish, the memory of them vanishes as well. Dark areas form in the brain, and unless you make a constant effort to summon up the things that are gone, they will quickly be lost to you forever. . . . Memory is not an act of will, after all. It is something that happens in spite of oneself, and when too much is changing all the time, the brain is bound to falter, things are bound to slip through it.
. . .
In the end, the problem is not so much that people forget, but that they do not always forget the same thing. What still exists as a memory for one person can be irretrievably lost for another, and this creates difficulties, insuperable barriers against understanding. How can you talk to someone about airplanes, for example, if that person doesn't know what an airplane is. It is a slow but ineluctable process of erasure. Words tend to last a bit longer than things, but eventually they fade too, along with the pictures they once evoked. Entire categories of objects disappear — flowerpots, for example, or cigarette filters, or rubber bands — and for a time you will be able to recognize those words, even if you cannot recall what they mean. But then, little by little, the words become only sounds, a random collection of glottals and fricatives, a storm of whirling phonemes, and finally the whole thing just collapses into gibberish. The word "flowerpot" will make no more sense to you than the word "splandigo." Your mind will hear it, but it will register as something incomprehensible, a word from a language you cannot speak. As more and more of these foreign-sounding words crop up around you, conversations become rather strenuous. In effect, each person is speaking his own private language...

Mr Frick:
Mr Frick had an odd, ungrammatical way of speaking, and he often made a hash of his ideas when trying to express them. I don't think this had anything to do with the quality of his mind — it was simply that words gave him trouble. He had difficulty maneuvering them around his tongue, and he would sometimes stumble over them as though they were physical objects, literal stones cluttering his mouth. Because of this, he seemed especially sensitive to the internal properties of words themselves: their sounds as divorced from their meanings, their symmetries and contradictions. "Words be what tells me how to know," he once explained to me. "That's why I got to be such an old man. My name is Otto. It go back and forth the same. It don't end nowhere but begin again. I get to live twice that way, twice as long as no one else. You too, miss. You be named the same as me. A-n-n-a. Back and forth the same, just like Otto myself. That's why you got to be born again..."

Boris, on the other hand, uses empty words to create dream worlds:
Boris had an aversion to being pinned down, and he used language as an instrument of locomotion — constantly on the move, darting and feinting, circling, disappearing, suddenly appearing again in a different spot.

The words are the last things.

I love Paul Auster.

Anna promises to try to write again when they get to where they're going. Dare I hope?

New York Times
Conversational Reading.
"The Definitive Website."
Part of a dissertation.

(Also, a review I read this weekend of a book that may share some themes with this one: "We Indians have this sublime ability to see the pain and misery around us and yet remain unaffected by it. So . . . close your eyes, close your ears, close your mouth, and you will be happy like me.")