Friday, June 23, 2017

Famous quotes reconsidered (after a long meeting)

"Hell is other people--who didn't bother to read their e-mail before the meeting."--Jean-Paul Sartre

"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee--and read your e-mail before the meeting."--Muhammad Ali

"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark--probably because nobody read their e-mail before the meeting."--William Shakespeare

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times-- but it would have been a lot better if everyone had read their e-mail before the meeting."--Charles Dickens

"When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin eager to nibble on the eyeballs of anyone who had failed to read the e-mail before the meeting." --Franz Kafka

"Meeting? What meeting?"--Me (in my nightmares)


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Honestly never intended to create a monster but now that it's here, let's put it to work

A great idea recently came wafting my way, but I greeted it with a combination of gratitude and dismay. On the one hand, it's not every day that I get a chance to grab hold of the kind of insight that could transform a boring writing project into something really spectacular; on the other hand, making the great idea behave will require a ton of work.

I thought this summer's writing projects wouldn't be too demanding, but one of them recently exploded in my face. The plan was simple: add a new section to a conference paper to expand it into a publishable article, based on research and notes I'd already assembled. Piece of cake.

Except it wasn't. As I wrote the new section, one interesting idea kept coming to the forefront and demanding further attention, overshadowing everything that had come before. My neat, tidy little analysis started to look like the Elephant Man, growing new bony appendages that could not be ignored and would not fit into the neatly tailored outline of the original paper.
But here's the thing: this demanding and unruly idea is really cool. The more I wrote, the more I appreciated the possibilities: I could reject the new idea and end up with yet another clever analysis of interest to about three specialists in the field, or I could develop the new idea in depth and end up with the kind of article that shines new light on a topic of interest to a much wider range of readers.

But it won't be easy. I've already had to dump my existing introduction and thesis and replace them with something more compelling, but now I have to try to make all those bony protuberances work together to create an elegant profile for the essay as a whole. I shove a section into line over here only to see it bulge out over there, and then I have to stitch in another section with sutures that look like they belong on the neck of Frankenstein's monster.

Yes: I seem to have created a monster. I just hope it doesn't consume my entire summer.

Summer colors

Today's lesson: if you just stop, stand still, and be silent, sometimes the thing you've been chasing will appear right in front of your face.

It works for butterflies and sometimes for birds, but I'm not making any guarantees about anything else. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Language as unruly child: Kory Stamper's Word by Word

"We think of English as a fortress to be defended," writes Kory Stamper, "but a better analogy is to think of English as a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don't want it to go....We dress it in fancy clothes and tell it to behave, and it comes home with its underwear on its head and wearing someone else's socks."

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries is Stamper's love song to the English language, written by a Merriam-Webster lexicographer skilled at explaining how the world of dictionaries works. Stamper explores the history of dictionaries and their cultural impact along with the nitpicky work required to construct them, but this wealth of detail does not weigh down the volume because Stamper infuses her stories with freshness and verve.

Her love affair with language takes into account etymology, grammar, spelling, and sound, sometimes separated from meaning--Stamper defies readers "to say the word 'hootamaganzy' aloud and not immediately fall in love with it, regardless of what it means." (I'll let you have the pleasure of looking it up.) But even the process of researching and describing nuances of meaning becomes compelling in Stamper's telling, as when she devotes an entire chapter to the many weeks she once spent updating the definition of the word "take." 

Stamper admits that lexicography has its occupational hazards, among them a tendency to develop a clinical approach to language. "When you spend all day looking carefully at words," she writes, "you develop a very detached and unnatural relationship with them. It's much like being a doctor, I imagine: a beautiful person walks into your office and takes off all their clothes, and you spend all your time staring at the sphygmomanometer."

Despite spending her working days surrounded by "the fusty glut of old papers bunged hastily into metal bookshelves," Stamper maintains a sense of wonder at the quirks of an ever-evolving language. If language is an unruly child that insists on going its own way, studying language can turn lexicographers into curious toddlers intent on examining everything: 

A job where you read all day can be a pleasure, to be sure, but it can also ruin you. Words cease to be casual, tossed off, and able to be left alone. You are that toddler on a walk, the one who wants to pick up every bit of detritus and gunk and dead insect and dog crap on the sidewalk, asking, "What's that, what's that, what's that?' while a parent with better things to do tries to haul your over-inquisitive butt away.

And while the lexicographer's work requires long hours spent in solitude and silence with only words for company, some of the more compelling chapters in the book describe the interactions between lexicographers and the public.  Stamper faced a firestorm of abuse after Merriam-Webster updated its definition of "marriage," but a more mundane task is tackling the constant stream of letters from readers demanding that the dictionary give them credit for inventing certain words, or that it recognize their pet peeves or cherished folk etymologies, or that it remove certain words because they are ungrammatical or hurtful or "made-up":

Of course 'irregardless' is a made-up word that was entered into the dictionary through constant use; that's pretty much how this racket works. All words are made-up. Do you think we find them fully formed on the ocean floor, or mine for them in some remote part of Wales?
Further, she feels the need to point out that "removing a word from the dictionary doesn't do away with the thing that word refers to specifically, or even tangentially." In response to demands that the dictionary police grammar rules rather than describing the way language is actually used, she asserts, "Humanity sets up rules to govern English, but English rolls onward, a juggernaut crushing all in its path."

In Word by Word, English is a juggernaut, an unruly child, a patient, a "murky swamp," and the ocean in which we're plunged, says Stamper, and 
Lexicographers spend a lifetime swimming through the English language in a way that no one else does; the very nature of lexicography demands it. English is a beautiful, bewildering language, and the deeper you dive in, the more effort it takes to come up to the surface for air.
I wanted to remain plunged beneath the surface of Stamper's work, but alas, all good books must come to an end. Fortunately, though, the work of creating dictionaries is never complete, because "A dictionary is out of date the minute that it's done." This is good news for lexicographers like Kory Stamper, who calls herself a "drudge" but makes her drudgery feel vibrant and vital. "English bounds onward," she concludes, "and we drudges will continue our chase after it, a little ragged for the rough terrain, perhaps, but ever tracking, eyes wide with quiet and reverence."

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Sherman Alexie's memoir: love, loss, and breathing room

In the first chapter of  You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie presents a bit of dialogue with a former writing teacher who finally tells Alexie, "Since you've just invented this entire conversation about storytelling and truth that you and I never had and put it in the first chapter of your memoir, then I'm just going to call you the unreliable narrator of your own life."

This metanarrative play is just one of many indications that this is not the ordinary memoir. Sparked by Alexie's mother's sudden death in 2015, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me is an angry, joyful, bitter, free-wheeling roller-coaster ride through Alexie's attempt to understand his complex relationship with his mother and his heritage. Prose chapters alternate with poetry in a dizzying variety of forms including free verse, couplets, prose poems, haiku, ceremonial chants, sestinas, and a highly unconventional "Sonnet, with Fabric Softener." Any poet could congratulate himself for having written one really good villanelle, but I lost track of how many villanelles Alexie included in this volume.

Alexie admits that his verbal dexterity is a coping mechanism helping him transform personal pain and anger into art--but my goodness, what wonders his pain creates. "I am always in pain," he writes, "But I always find my way to the story. And I always find my way home."

"Home" was a never-finished house on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, where Alexie lived until he left for college and a writing career. He vividly portrays the poverty and uncertainty of his early life; in a poem called "Eulogize Rhymes with Disguise," he describes a time when fear of his mother's irrational and uncontrollable anger led the young Alexie to sleep on the porch with the dogs: 
I never stopped

Being afraid of her. I never left
That dark porch. I am still
Sleeping with those dogs.
Yes, I am always cold and curled

Like a question mark
Among those animal bodies.
The question marks multiply as Alexie tries to separate reality from fabulation, admitting that he has inherited his mother's facility with lying. He clearly admired his mother, describing her once as "so beautiful and verbose and brilliant she could have played a fictional version of herself in a screwball Hollywood comedy if Hollywood had ever bothered to cast real Indians as fictional Indians." However, her best qualities seem intricately intertwined with her worst. Nowhere is this more evident than in "The Quilting," a long haiku cycle portraying Lillian Alexie's tenacity in supporting her family by her skill as a quilter, a skill that created warmth and beauty intermingled with neglect and pain. The poem ends thus:
Square by square by square,
She punched anger through our skin
And turned us into quilts.

Wrapped around our mom,
We quilts absorbed her anger
And her fear and pain.

Wrapped around our mom,
We quilts absorbed her courage
And her love and grace.

Square by square by square,
We quilts honor our mother
And her strange genius.

She taught us survival
With needle, thread, and thimble
All stained with her blood.

Like a quilt, Alexie's memoir juxtaposes apparently unrelated fragments to create a composite picture that nevertheless remains blurry. Part of this blurriness results from a lack of reliable information: given conflicting stories about his mother's birth, which should he believe? Given an absence of historical records about his ancestors on the reservation, what can he know about their lives? "I suppose I could really dig into the research and get stuff as accurate as possible," he writes, "but I like the blank spaces. I like how they feel. I want readers to feel how I feel. I want them to feel the loss. I want them to know how guilty I feel for not knowing this stuff."

Alexie plays with this sense of absence by presenting alternate versions of the same event and inventing new clan names to describe his heritage, including "the Clan of Doing Our Best to Re-Create and Replicate the Sacred Things That Were Brutally Stolen from Us," in a chapter that concludes with a statement of identity founded on absence: "My name is Sherman Alexie and I was born from loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss and loss. And loss."

Among the losses Alexie explores is the loss of certainty after his surgery for a benign brain tumor in 2016, which led him to drastically limit his pace of travel; the chapter describing his drugged-up conversation with his nurse is among the most amusing in the book. The comedy, however, is sharpened by the fear of further loss (of life or brain function), which helps explain why this book sometimes feels like a frantic pouring forth of words before it's too late. 

Out of all those losses he creates a memoir that is equal parts beautiful and disturbing. "I return to her, my mother," he writes, "who, in these pages, dies and dies and dies and is continually reborn." He resurrects her as a wolf, a ghost, or even a tree, as in the poem "Pine," in which he prays that his Mother Tree will 
Turn every toxin
Into oxygen.

So that my siblings
And I can finally
And simply breathe.
I hear Alexie breathing in You Don't Have to Say You Love Me,  but I also hear him screaming with anger and laughing with joy. What better epitaph could a mother ever ask for?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Signs of absence or absence of signs?

I set out in a light rain to hike through Black Hand Gorge, a nature preserve named for a Native American petroglyph, a giant black hand that once adorned a cliff face along this scenic stretch of the Licking River. In 1828 the petroglyph was blasted to smithereens to make room for a towpath. Naming a place for what we've destroyed in order to possess it: typical.

As I stood reading the sign explaining the destruction of the petroglyph, I wanted to go back in time and remind those gung-ho developers that progress does not require erasing everything created by those who preceded us. But they're all gone now: the quarries once humming with activity are now silent and filled with stagnant water; the rail line has been transformed into a hiking trail and portions of the towpath are still visible, but the only sign of the black hand that once guided Native Americans is a sign pointing to the absence of a sign. Baudrillard would have fun with that.

I've been wanting to get our canoe on the Licking River and so I decided to scope out the possibilities. I found two promising places to launch the canoe, and then I hit the trail to check water conditions. I've been in that gorge when the water barreled through at flood stage but as the summer wears on it tends to get low. Downstream toward Dillon Lake the Licking spreads out across shallow mud flats, but the gorge squeezes the river into a channel that appears deep enough to float a canoe.

Of course I didn't put my canoe in today because I was lacking three elements essential to a good canoe trip: (1) canoe; (2) husband; (3) good weather. Yes: the light rain that did not deter my setting out on the trail eventually turned into a serious downpour, so that I finally arrived back at my car feeling as if I'd been in for a swim. But now I know a few more things about canoeing the Licking River, so when the signs are right, we'll go.

My hike kept reminding me of Martin Espada's poem "The Monsters at the Edge of the World," where a brain scan becomes "a map drawn by conquerors / flying the banner of exploration / and misnaming all the islands," but the map points only to damage: "stroke, hemorrhage / as if saying that monsters dwell here / at the edge of the world." More significant is what the map leaves out:
do we see the lake where one night
we drifted in a wooden boat
with a bottle of wine
and dangled sparklers
over the starry water.

The scan that reveals the damage in the brain simultaneously conceals what machines cannot see: the memories and images, convictions and connections that make us who we are

What did that missing petroglyph mean to the people who created it? Even if the sign had been preserved, we're not equipped to read it. And so the conqueror moves in, flying the flag of exploration, and shoves aside what he cannot understand, considering the unknown uncivilized--even monstrous--and consigning the monsters to the edge of the world.  

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Close encounters of the cacti kind

This evening I had to call my husband long-distance and confess to having destroyed one of his beloved cacti--but only in self-defense. Honest, it tried to murder me first!

How did I get into this mess? I think it started back in 1982, when I married a man whose love for succulents led him to station massive cacti in pots all over our house, so that I can't wash the big front picture window without getting spines in my arms--and don't even ask my son about the time he fell onto a cactus at about the age of four. (Meaning he was four. I don't know how old the cactus was.) Have you ever tried to remove hundreds of tiny cactus spines from the buttocks of a squirmy four-year-old? I don't recommend it.

But that's ancient history. Today's mishap begins with a peculiar fact: there are some cleaning projects I prefer to do when my husband is out of town. I don't want to suggest that he gets in the way, but, for instance, it's much easier to shampoo carpets when they're not covered with size-12 shoes and stacks of books and husbands who have just come in from the garden and urgently need to fetch things from rooms where the carpets are still wet.  

So I shampooed the bedroom carpets last week while my husband was at one conference and I have a whole different set of annoying household tasks lined up this week while he's at another. Today I tackled the worst one: cleaning the bookshelves in the basement.

It sounds simple enough, but only if you don't know our basement. It's a walk-out basement with deep windows on one side, and those window sills are covered with house plants that support a spider-intensive ecosystem. Further, the four (!) bookshelves down there have not been moved since we moved in to this house 13 years ago, so I wanted to empty them all out, pull 'em away from the walls, and clean up whatever messes I found.

I did it right: washed the walls, cleaned the shelves, dusted the books before putting them back (in alphabetical order by author!), cleaned up what looked like a massive mouse nest, vacuumed up untold numbers of spiders and egg sacs and dead ladybugs and plant detritus.

And I was nearly done--the end was in sight!--when I went to pull a small two-drawer filing cabinet away from the wall and one of the casters fell off, causing the whole thing to tip sideways and take me with it.

Now a really smart person would have taken the cacti off the top of the filing cabinet before trying to move it, but I was, as I've mentioned, nearly done with a nasty, dirty, dusty, sweaty job and so exhausted that I wasn't thinking straight. Which is just the time when I need someone else to do the thinking for me, but no one else was here, so over we all went, filing cabinet, cacti, spiders, dirt, and me.
It took a while, but I fixed the filing cabinet and rescued the giant aloe, which is, I think, unkillable. The other cactus, however, bit the dust, and then I had to scoop up and sweep up and vacuum up the dirt and then scrub that bit of carpet so I can eventually move the filing cabinet back where it belongs.

I'm still picking cactus spines out of my hands but aside from that, I'm fine. And the basement is fine, or it will be when I get a few things back in place. And the giant aloe is fine. So what if I killed a cactus? It's not as if we're suffering any lack of succulents.

But I'm really glad I got that awful nasty cleaning task out of the way early in the week. Do you know what I intend to clean tomorrow? 

Absolutely nothing.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Summer reading: just the tip of the iceberg

Opportunity of a lifetime, folks: Who wants to read a tepid review of a book I've already decided against assigning in class next year? 

What, no one wants to read that review? Good thing, because I don't want to write it.

Summer is when I catch up on all the books I haven't had time for during the semester, but so far, most of the stuff I've been plowing through has been, um, adequate at best. Occasionally interesting, moderately significant, possibly suitable for use in a footnote, but I could sum up the bulk of my reading so far this summer in a single word: Meh.

Which makes the highlights shine all the brighter. Here are two books that have made me want to grab people by the sleeve and say, "You've got to read this!"

Outline by Rachel Cusk, a novel featuring an almost nonexistent plot: a woman goes to Athens to lead a writing workshop and talks to a bunch of people--or, more accurately, listens as they tell their stories. The writing is hypnotic, the voices seeming to arrive from a great distance but striking close to the heart; Cusk's unadorned prose takes a leaf from W.G. Sebald and hums with the subterranean pain Sebald specialized in. 

At one point the narrator confides that she had not noticed a friend's floundering "any more than the mountain notices the climber that loses his footing and falls down one of its ravines." In fact, she continues, "Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forges one's own destiny by what one doesn't notice or feel compassion for; that what you don't know and don't make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of."

But later another character claims that compassion is not enough, for even the most attentive and loving people can urge others into impossible situations: "Perhaps, he said, we are all like animals in the zoo, and once we see that one of us has got out of the enclosure we shout at him to run like mad, even though it will only result in him becoming lost."

Outline brings together a menagerie of such lost people, providing only the vaguest outline of the great loss that lies at the center. For the rest of the story, I'll have to read the sequel, Transit.

And speaking of lost people: I have to confess that I gobbled down the entire 514 pages of David Sedaris's Theft by Finding over a 48-hour span. I don't know whether these excerpts from Sedaris's diaries (from 1977-2002) are more like a bag of Lay's potato chips (no one can eat just one!) or like a multi-car pileup that won't let you look away. The entries are occasionally tedious and at times I wanted to take Sedaris by the shoulders and urge him to for heaven's sake just grow up, but what an amazing book. 

I'm not saying it's gorgeously written or an instant classic or socially redeeming or anything like that, but this book will be enjoyed by the kind of person who enjoys this kind of book. And I am not ashamed to be that kind of person. (Well, maybe a little.) 

Sedaris's keen observing eye focuses on mundane details of daily life--the fluctuating price of chicken parts, the very specific and sometimes bizarre demands of urban beggars, the endearing or embarrassing foibles of his friends and family members--but the cumulative effect reveals the immense effort required to create a coherent life from the disparate and ill-matched parts we're born with. Becoming a self-sustaining adult requires a massive amount of hard work, some of it for minimum wage and some in the company of reprehensible people, but the work itself is suffused with dignity, even if you sometimes have to shove a bucket of chicken parts out of the way to see it.

In the introduction, Sedaris comments on the interaction between living and writing: "In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. Out in the world where it's so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it." And if someone with as keen an eye as David Sedaris sits down and writes about his world, I for one am going to read it.

In Outline Rachel Cusk maintains exquisite control--there is not an ill-chosen word, not a clumsy line, and every ounce of pain lies submerged like the hidden bulk of an iceberg. David Sedaris, on the other hand, hefts the iceberg out of the water and slaps you across the face with it--or he intends to slap you but instead slips and falls and comes up gasping, and then he turns the whole thing into a funny story. 

I can't imagine two more different writers, but what can I say? I like my icebergs both ways.