Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Net is Not Our Only Love: Thoughts on Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows"

Are we losing our contemplative minds by being online?

That’s the central, disconcerting question that author Nicholas Carr asks and then answers with a measured yes in his new book The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing Our Brains (Norton, 2010). In The Shallows, Carr follows up on a concern he first voiced in his 2008 essay in The Atlantic titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

The book bolsters Carr’s original argument nicely, backing up anxieties about the human intellect with results of recent neurological studies as well as piles of alarming anecdotal evidence. And, considering it’s a book that so bemoans twenty-first-century attention spans, Carr’s volume manages to maintain reader interest surprisingly well throughout. It’s an enjoyable, engrossing read from an unassuming wordsmith who willingly offers himself as a sort of worst-of-gadget-sinners figure while launching into his troubling cultural diagnosis.

“I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple minutes,” Carr testifies early on in the book. “Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check e-mail, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected. Just as Microsoft Word had turned me into a flesh-and-blood word processor, the Internet, I sensed, was turning me into something like a high-speed data-processing machine, a human HAL.”

Who among the wired masses cannot relate to this confession? Who among us has not silently relished seeing a handful of unread messages appear in the inbox and felt compelled to catch up on Twitter and Facebook feeds at almost embarrassing rates of frequency during the day? And yet, as illuminating and informative and relatable as his material is, Carr’s interpretations often wax too apocalyptic to be very believable, overreaching in terms of what it all portends for humanity.

Carr strikes this less convincing note when he writes that while it's “possible” to think deeply while online, deep thinking is “not the type of thinking the technology encourages or rewards.” Instead, Carr goes on to say, the medium tends to transform us into “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” Really? Is this truly what we are being reduced to? The online habits of those I have known and lived and worked with bear little resemblance to such descriptions of mindless frenzy.

Perhaps at certain cynical moments images of something akin to lab rats cross our minds as we glance at strangers texting in an airport or watch Droid commercials glamorizing automated efficiency. (I must admit that it was with a kind of otherizing disgust that I passed an Apple store overflowing with a flock of iPhoners the other day, and yesterday when the soulless Kindle commercial aired yet again, the one with the two people seated on the sterile-looking beach, I wanted to shake the ad’s producers for so thoroughly collapsing the magic of the literary world into a bland image of escapism.) But when I consider people more carefully and the technologies and gadgets we employ more closely, I’m generally unable to subscribe to this doomsday vision of where humanity is headed, nor place such primary blame for societal trajectories on the prevalence of digital connectivity. Carr suggests that not only may the digital age of distraction rob our brains of the ability to think deeply but, even more troubling, the ability to empathize with others and have compassion. And while I share his concern over perceived threats to these important qualities, I do not view the latest technologies as the major enemy of them.

Carr and other critics of technology help keep us alert to our penchant for the latest tools and toys. Societal and individual reflection on such matters is valuable and necessary, and The Shallows is a worthwhile contribution to those efforts. What I appreciate most about the book is its pairing of literary and historical figures with the more technical aspects of his argument. Unexpectedly relevant excursions into minds ranging from Socrates to Kubrick and from Nietzsche to Erasmus make it impossible to brush Carr off lightly. He’s clearly done a great deal of deep reading and meditative thinking (however diminished he believes his capacity to do so).

In his original Atlantic piece, Carr concludes with references to the movie 2001, artificial intelligence and the suggestion that we are fast becoming “pancake people” with little depth—all working memory, few longterm cognitive powers on which to draw. It’s a frightening conclusion to consider, but also an unlikely and unnecessary one—at least if we continue to love more than just the Internet. And our day-to-day acitivities, commitments and lives suggest that indeed we do.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"What if reading were proved to be more beneficial than exercise?"

This question was one of many good ones asked by author Francine Prose during her address at the 3rd International Humanities Medal event at Wash U tonight. Here are a few more of her remarks that really got me thinking ...

"It's neither the responsibility, nor the purpose, of art to make us better people." That responsibility, Prose said, is "each one of ours," as human beings.

"[Art] can help us understand better what it is to be a human being," and there is "something humanizing about the intimacy" between artist and viewer/reader.

Art can protect us -- it is "the driftwood that humans cling to, as we always have, when we worry that we are drowning."

She referenced Emily Dickinson more than once, particularly in regard to what we mean when we say that something is beautiful or true. I got a copy of Prose's Reading Like a Writer: A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them. Can't wait to read her.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


I have nothing like Dickinson's excuse for my absence--"a terror since September"--but nevertheless I've neglected my blog since the end of August. I've been thinking a lot about troubling things, particularly the consequences of community, the concept of hell, and war as waged by the country that has my allegiance. (Nothing too major, right?)

For a while now, at least since the "Staging War" literature course I took a year and a half ago in Wyoming, I've been well on my way to a pacifist stance. An understanding of violence as perhaps our greatest failure of imagination as human beings certainly makes any war pretty difficult to support. Perhaps many just-war-theory types feel the same way, except for some exceptions in certain circumstances. But I don't think I'll end up in the just war camp (even though I'm all for the good arguments against the invasion of Iraq etc based on such theory).

It's strange to write this down, even though I've obsessed and obsessed over it. There's the fear of being, and sounding, naive. "I just am not okay with ever killing someone. War is bad. The end." There's also the inherent element of hypocrisy--I continue to live as a citizen of the United States and in effect contribute to (even benefit from?) our never-ending occupations in the Middle East.

But there's something else, too, something bigger: the realization that if the majority of Americans came to agree with me, and we really did rethink the utility of violence, there would likely be some very terrible consequences. We would be left vulnerable, open to attack. Many of us would lose our lives. I get it. I get that it would totally suck and that my being okay with such an outcome might be a little extreme. When I consider the alternatives, though, I'm pretty convinced that a pacifist approach is the most reasonable and ethical among the available options.

I wonder if this makes me a coward. Weak. Willing to let the bad guys win. I don't know. But I do know that it's not because I'd be afraid to fire a weapon, or to die. It's because, as Chris Hedges writes, "a soldier who is able to see the humanity of the enemy makes a troubled and ineffective killer." It's because a world like ours, where violence and suffering have become so necessary, isn't a world I care to perpetuate. And it's probably because I can't get Susan Sontag out of my head (Regarding the Pain of Others).

On a more positive note, it's also because of flashes of true imagination that suggest war is not the only way. Flashes like this one, from the interview (with the author) at the back of God Bless: A Political/Poetic Discourse Mediated by H. L. Hix:

"Bush turns up the volume on his rhetoric depending on who he's talking to, or turns it down, and so does bin Laden. He's also made peace overtures: look, the instant that you stop occupying the lands that we consider sacred, we stop shooting you. In any kind of a dialogue--third graders having a fist fight, or two of the most powerful people on the planet leading others into battle with thousands and thousands of lives as stake--in any kind of dialogue you can either withhold trust from the other person until the other person fulfills your preconditions for attributing trust, or you can insist on trust as a condition of conversation, and grant the trust and cling to it insistently. I can hear someone saying now, we tried to trust him but they flew planes into our buildings, and the other side then makes analogous accusations about different events, so if there's going to be dialogue instead of shooting, somebody has to say, okay I believe that you are a human being who wishes to live and wishes for those you love to have happy and robust lives, and I am going to act as if that is the case no matter what you do. It seems to me that that's a healthier approach."

I for one am up for us trying that approach -- "I believe that you are a human being ... and I am going to act as if that is the case no matter what you do."

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A tribute to Dash

I was going to describe exactly why he's the best cat ever, but ...

... need I really say more? I love you, Dash.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The threadbare case against Park51 "mega-mosque"

Only one respectable talking point remains for opponents of Cordoba's planned Muslim-American community center, and it depends on a single phrase -- it's insensitive. This last-ditch argument actually bolsters the case for the development of Park51, at least when we look closely at the meaning of sensitivity and its absence (insensitivity), as well as at the proposed center itself.

While we often associate sensitivity with the experience of being offended or having our feelings hurt, Oxford's first definition of the word sensitive is being "accutely affected by external stimuli or mental impressions; having sensibility [the capability to feel]." Further definitions of the word follow, of course, but this idea of having the capability to feel captures nicely what we mean when using sensitive with positive connotations. Conversely, the word insensitive comes with this description: "unfeeling; boorish; crass." This idea is the one being applied to the Muslim community in New York City, a community that lost some of its own members and loved ones in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Now consider Park51's stated vision and answer to the "why now" question: "In the spirit of tolerance and service, the Muslim community of New York envisions a world-class facility and an unprecedented community center as a gesture of our dedication to the city. At a time of economic hardship, Park51 will constitute an investment of over $100 million of infrastructure in lower Manhattan, creating over 150 full-time jobs and over 500 part-time jobs, and providing much-needed space, open to all, for community activities, health and wellness, arts and culture and personal and professional development."

Which words most befit these goals? Ambitious, certainly. Bold. Even courageous, considering the discrimination Muslim Americans continue to face in this country. But insensitive? Nah.

If words are not enough, consider the development plan itself. The complex is intended to include not only a space for prayer but also sports facilities, a library, art studios, a restaurant, a culinary school and "a September 11th memorial and quiet contemplation space, open to all." And the Wall Street Journal reports that the board overseeing the center will include members from other religions in order to, in the words of project partner Daisy Khan, "protect the interests of the center and to ensure the center has the highest standards of transparency." Minarets, by the way, aren't part of the plan.

Cordoba has gone about this whole thing quite sensitively indeed. Their efforts and plans and reactions have in fact demonstrated a solid capacity to feel and sense and consider and adapt, as well as a solid capacity to stand up to fear and deep distortion. I'm glad they're sticking to their (clearly nonviolent) guns, and I wish them the very best in their genuine efforts to foster understanding and peace. I believe folks like those behind Park51 are doing much more constructive things in this world than those who continue to use the horror of Sept. 11 in ways that keep us viewing the world and its dwellers in simplistic, war-mongering ways.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Operations wonderful

Watching the news tonight, I was reminded just how removed the language of modern warfare is from its realities. The host was rattling off several U.S. military operation names, including "Operation Enduring Freedom," "Operation Iraqi Freedom" and, the winner of the most-Twilight-esque badge, "Operation New Dawn." There's apparently as much of an art these days to naming a war as there is to branding anything else.

Operation nicknames haven't always been so aimed at shaping public perception. Prior to World War II, one helpful source explains, color-based operation names were common (e.g., "Operation Indigo"), and even after 1945 the list of military operations includes a number of color-, region- and content-based names. But in 1989, officials under President Bush termed the invasion of Panama "Operation Just Cause," and similarly agenda-driven nicknames have followed since.

Is this embedded form of persuasion to pro-war sentiment simply how things have to be in a marketing-savvy world? I hope not. It's one thing for Pepsi to suggest that drinking their cola makes you cool or unique in addition to quenching your thirst. It's quite another thing for the United States to suggest that occupying lands outside its realm and killing fellow human beings is all part of making freedom endure. War is at its heart a destructive enterprise. It is the deepest failure of human imagination, and when we engage in it (these days, apparently without end) we ought to acknowledge that reality, not whitewash it.

When the U.S. initiated nuclear testing, the powers that be named it "Operation Crossroads." Perhaps a slight misnomer considering the consequences?

Here are some alternative nicknames, though I fear they will not see military ink: 1) For the ongoing war Afghanistan, let's call it "Operation that Must Succeed Even If It Can't" or "Operation No Plan B." 2) Instead of "Operation New Dawn" for this latest announced phase in Iraq, let's go with "Operation Apology for American Exceptionalism." Eh. These could be better.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Impressions of Butler's "Dear Sound of Footstep"

Sometimes first impressions are misleading, and that was the case with Dear Sound of Footstep (Sarabande 2009), an essay collection by Ashley Butler that I picked up at the publisher's table at AWP in Denver this spring.

On first reading, the writing was impressive, but the book wasn't engrossing me. I only managed a few pages at a time, and it felt like work to pick it up again and again. Described by the back-cover blurbers as "innovative," "daring" and "eloquent," the book delivered on all these fronts, but I wasn't drawn in like I'd hoped. I plugged away at it, but I was giving up on the text so frequently--and the essays were ending and beginning so rapidly--that there was no sense of continuity or development.

But these are lyric essays, if anything is, and I picked the book up again last week to see what I could discover from Butler's technique. And on second reading, I found a lot more to appreciate about her work.

In some ways reminding me of those in Lia Purpura's On Looking, the essays in Dear Sound of Footstep link ideas and anecdotes that in any other context would appear un-connectable to one another. Butler's discussion of her mother's debilitating disease and slow death is the most obvious theme, but it is really one among many recurring threads. The book describes scientific exploration, failed experiments and dreams, interaction with Butler's father and sister, Houdini's death, and the five senses. The variety and order can seem random at times in the book, but for me more connections appeared the second time--so that, for instance, an essay titled "Crime Scene" that references everything from syrup bubbling up through the tongs of a fork to Butler's first childhood conversation with her mother about what happens after death left me with more than mere befuddlement.

Some of the essays could be categorized poems, and, not surprisingly, these are the essays that continue to leave me very much in the dark, even on second reading. Still, I enjoyed the literary frolic of many of them, even though I felt like I "didn't get it." In one essay marked by aphorisms made new (and in many cases made completely inscrutible to me), Butler writes, "Hyperboles happen in happiness and horror, in sickness and in stealth. People say true dreams come but true love depends on optics. If a mark is significantly longer than it is wide, then a line has been drawn. If two lines converge on a plane, then a vanishing appears in one's future." If I try to figure out a paragraph like that, I end up frustrated. Sometimes it's best just sit back and enjoy, see what comes to mind, what light these statements shed on the world.

In an interview available on Sarabande's site, Butler notes that in her book and "in writing in general ... openness is important, that is, to try to make a space so something can pass through." Butler seems to accomplish that goal in Dear Sound, even though as readers we may not be able to put our finger precisely on what just passed.

Her brief description in "The Book of Concealed Hearts" of what I'm assuming is the 2007 collapse of the Minneapolis bridge is stunning, and unadorned, akin to the kind of conversations and news broadcasts in Don't Let Me Be Lonely (Claudia Rankine). Butler's record of the questions of a reporter and the answers of a rescuer is sticking with me, along with this, oddly my favorite moment in the book:

"Hunter agreed to go on a [medical helicopter] flight a few months ago. On the drive to the hospital, however, she crested a hill and found the truck in her lane had been hit ... Adam lands right in front of her. He's not allowed to get out of the helicopter because it's all about speed. She imagines him looking back through the shield attached to his helmet, imagines herself as the patient then medic. He's advised to stare straight ahead so he doesn't get emotionally involved. He has to fly a different direction depending on how a body is injured. If you get burned you go to Dallas. If you get crushed you go to Abilene."

Thursday, July 08, 2010

So many doors, so many locks, and other adventures

I live a block away from this ...

... and I finally ventured inside it this week (it being the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, on which work continued over the course of 80 years).

I happened inside the door only minutes before 5 p.m., which as it turns out is closing time. I explored the various chapels and read through the ornately posted beatitudes for several peaceful moments. And then I turned to go, to continue on to the grocery store down the street.

But the narthex door was locked! And the other front door. And the other. I scurried as reverently but quickly as possible back into the sanctuary and up the left side aisle. Hooray! A side door. But no. It too was sealed shut.

Just as I began resigning myself to the prospect of sleeping on one of the pews, I heard a sound. A door closing. I raced to the right side of the altar and around toward one of the chapels. And a nice older gentleman tour guide kindly let me escape. Phew!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Remembering Saramago

Here are a few gems from Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, who died Friday:

"I think we are blind. Blind people who can see, but do not see." -from Blindness

"I always ask two questions: How many countries have military bases in the United States? And in how many countries does the United States not have military bases?"

"Since the world began, for every person who is born another dies." -from The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

"After watering and feeding the donkeys, the travelers finally sat down to eat, the men first, of course. How often we need to remind ourselves that Eve was created after Adam and taken from his rib. Will we ever learn that certain things can be understood only if we take the trouble to trace them to their origins." -from The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

"The attitude of insolent haughtiness is characteristic of the relationship Americans form with what is alien to them, with others."

"Americans have discovered the fragility of life, that ominous fragility that the rest of the world either already experienced or is experiencing now with terrible intensity."

"In effect I am not a novelist, but rather a failed essayist who started to write novels because he didn't know how to write essays."

"All dictionaries together do not contain even half of the words we needed to understand each other." -from The Double (and posted on Saramago's blog less than a month ago under the header "Babel")

Monday, June 14, 2010

Latest addition

I may not yet boast a kitchen table or even living-room chairs, but I am the excited new owner of a neighborly Schwinn, which fits nicely in the empty space between the fridge and Dash's favorite window.

As someone who really hasn't ridden much since childhood, and mostly on trails, it's going to take me a little while to get used to cycling right beside city traffic. Signaling turns with my arm feels pretty strange, and sometimes I want to hop on the sidewalk and join the pedestrians. Tomorrow morning will be my first bike-to-work day, so that will be something of a test, even though the trip is only a couple miles.

After a tentative afternoon of riding to lunch, to the library, to coffee and to the post office, I happened upon some confidence-building guidelines online, as well as some really complicated and frightening (albeit amusing) suggestions and statistics at I also ran across, and am deeply impressed by these folks.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Not Hedges' best

In his intelligent but unfortunately titled book I Don't Believe in Atheists, former war correspondent and divinity student Chris Hedges pinpoints several important parallels that link religious fundamentalists with those who would appear to be their clearest opponents--the "new atheists," typically represented by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others who've authored books with titles like The God Delusion and The End of Faith. In tracing these patterns, Hedges draws on a substantial stack of indicting evidence against new-atheist convictions.

"They divide the world into superior and inferior races, those who are enlightened by reason and knowledge, and those who are governed by irrational and dangerous beliefs," Hedges writes in the introduction. "Hitchens and Harris describe the Muslim world [where Hedges notes that he himself spent seven years as a bureau chief] in language that is as racist, crude and intolerant as that used by Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell. They are a secular version of the religious right ... Human beings must become like them, think like them and adopt their values, which they insist are universal, or be banished from civilized society. All other values, which they never investigate or examine, are dismissed."

Intolerance, other-izing, arrogance, unwarranted certitude and utopian faith in humanity--these negative attributes definitely do show up in the examples of new-atheist thinking that Hedges goes on to cite. But the tongue-lashing Hedges gives these secular fundamentalists in I Don't Believe in Atheists rings hollow by the last page, where Hedges concludes simply, even simplistically, "Religious thought is a guide to morality. It points humans toward inquiry. It seeks to unfetter the mind from prejudices that blunt reflection and self-criticism ... Utopian dreamers, lifting up impossible ideals, plunge us into depravity and violence. It is those who are broken, those who see the shifting sands of our inner lives and fictive narratives we hide behind, who can save us ... They talk not of power but of the transcendent. They talk of reverence. And in their words we see the limits of reason and the possibilities of religion."

Hedges' book is a call for moderate voices on these weighty issues, and there are of course many echoing that vital call. Perhaps it's that very cultural resonance that leaves me less than satisfied with the book, because I close it feeling like I've read yet another treatise on the polarization that marks the public sphere and how truly alarming the loudest participants are at either end.

But there's another reason I'm critical of the book, and that's that many of Hedges' statements seem to fall prey to the very trends he decries, particularly caricature. Consider this conclusion, near the back of the book, about the state of contemporary society: " ... in the Middle Ages people were manipulated and informed by stained glass images and graphic paintings of religious suffering and redemption. We, too, are hostage to images. We are inundated with pictures of excess wealth and consumption. The pious in the Middle Ages genuflected before the awful authority and majesty of the church. They feared the wrath of God. We genuflect before celebrity, prizes, money and status, held out to us like bait. Profligate consumption is not only desirable, but also the only life that offers worth and meaning ... The mass of citizens who do not become wealthy and powerful, who buy Tom Ford's products but never become him, harbor feelings of failure and worthlessness." (My apologies for the long quotes, patient reader.)

To the extent that Hedges is simply giving those on the far right and left a dose of their own medicine, fine. But it's difficult, I think, for most readers to find such a black-and-white characterization of what's wrong with the modern world and how we find meaning in bleak times a convincing aspect of his case. Do we masses truly harbor "feelings of failure and worthlessness" because we are so crushed not to be famous millionaires? Is this notion of the harmful proliferation of images really accurate? Aren't we more often depressed as a result of far different, and far more real, things--things like the pain of a friend or family member, the nature of modern warfare, the spewing of a constant stream of oil into a beautiful ocean, or deep personal regrets?

I was much more taken with Hedges' 2002 book, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, which was a finalist for the nonfiction National Book Award. And because Hedges wrote such a book I am both forever in his debt and somewhat disappointed in this more recent project. The former left me with so much of worth to ponder, complicating world events and issues that I had all too easily cut and dried in my head. I Don't Believe in Atheists just isn't on the same level. But all that said, it's still worth a read. Just make sure to read War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning as well. It's one of the more troubling and informative and necessary books I've encountered.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Currently reading

For some reason the past few weeks I've been skipping back and forth between several good books:

The Autobiography of Mark Twain
: It's as fun as his fiction. I guess I should have expected as much, but the way he hides hilarity within what at first appears to be a rather plodding paragraph is rather stunning. For instance, near the end of a paragraph which if skimmed one might assume to be a fairly traditional I-remember-as-a-child-doing-such-and-such, Twain writes, "When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened. It is sad to go to pieces like this but we all have to do it."

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ
(Jose Saramago): Seems as different a novel from Blindness as could be, except for the spare paragraph-ization. I'm interested to compare it to Jim Crace's Quarantine, which offers an alternative imagining of Jesus' early years.

I've also started Don DeLillo's
Libra and a book of essays by David Foster Wallace called A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.

I'll blame this bit of literary schizophrenia on the unsettledness of moving across the country these last few weeks, along with the pleasure of having a public library three blocks away now.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

From three women, three cats to one woman, one cat

Dash and I will be leaving our shared space here in Laramie next week to move to our own home, just the two of us, in a lovely part of St. Louis. The studio apartment pictured below is small but clean and reasonable and, I think, just the right size for my feline and me.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Calvin misjudged? Perhaps not

Marilynne Robinson argues in The Death of Adam that John Calvin and his legacy and his followers have been wrongly caricatured in the annals of history. I'm still working through my response to her claims, including the claim that we shouldn't be so hard on Calvin for authorizing the burning of a heretic in Geneva--after all, she writes, other religious leaders were authorizing many more such burnings at the stake in his time.

My gut reaction to her argumentation is a skeptical one, but I've been trying to withhold judgment, even of this giant of the Reformed faith whose TULIP (five points) wreaked a certain havoc on my understanding of God, until I have a more informed view of him, since I have not yet read his seminal work, the Institutes.

But then I run across another Calvin quote, this time oddly placed among a Facebook friend's favorite quotes, and Calvin's words keep speaking for themselves: "God preordained, for his own glory and the display of his attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation."

That such a horrible formulation has managed not only to hold together the whole theological framework of a religious movement for centuries but also become a "favorite quote" of a friend is beyond alarming. I think my hesitation about tackling Calvin in my nonfiction work might be soon coming to an end.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Scary stuff

This and other photos on the National Geographic Web site are really disconcerting. The boat included in this one gives me a sense of just how huge this spill is.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

"I hate money" (Jo March)

This week, life is feeling surprisingly expensive.

Graduation fee ... $25
Gown/hood rental fee ... $96
Uploading-of-thesis fee ... $55
Sudden parking ticket for parking where I've parked frequently for a year ... $25
Overnight postage of apartment lease application ... $18
Security deposit ... (um, a lot)

A very large bottle of strawberry beer to make it all better? $7. And some chocolate cake.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Thanks to the talents of Joe and also Rachel, the MFA's esteemed organizer/planner/designer, this poster is currently gracing the hallways of Hoyt, announcing what promises to be an interesting evening of readings and Q&A next Friday (April 30).

The event is free and open to public. And apparently there will be treats.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dream on, worldmag

As someone who genuinely grappled with the Emerging Church (ECM) and, in doing so, found helpful stepping stones and a kind of refuge in books like A New Kind of Christian (Brian McLaren), I found this sweeping article from World to be pretty obnoxious.

"The theological lines have been drawn and are settled," writes Anthony Bradley, a theology professor at King's College in New York City. "We have all moved on. We know who fits into evangelicalism, post-liberalism, Anabaptism, Calvinism, and so on." The only reason to consider the ECM any longer, Bradley says, is as a "recent historical one" that has died.

Ultimately the ECM has not proved to be a tradition with which I can sufficiently identify (I'm still too much of a recovering modernist, I think, to be willing to term my fairly agnostic disposition a "new kind" of Christianity). But the questions ECMers have asked and are asking are the same kinds of questions I've been compelled to ask, especially concerning religious exclusivity (Jesus as the "only way"). And those questions are not even close to going away.

Of course Bradley and others who see the open-ended ECM as primarily negative are anxious to dismiss its spiritual impacts. And of course they will interpret the cited Rob Bell apology (that his church congregation has ended up "a big institution that wounded people in similar ways" to more typical Christian groups) as a sign of the movement's demise rather than evidence rather to the contrary. They won't want to consider that that kind of institutional self-reflection is distinctive and rare in Christianity. They'll just try to brush it off as a moment of yay-we-win.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Nonfiction squabbles (Part One?)

Steven Colbert's interview with author David Shields earlier this week has spurred me to do some more thinking about how I understand the nonfiction genre and how my practice of it compares to the kinds of things Shields and John D'Agata are after in their respective efforts to carve out for the essay form an equal (or even superior, in Shields' view?) place within contemporary literature.

Colbert (whose ability to marry humor with the utterly troubling and serious continues to compel me) certainly didn't take it easy on Shields in his questions about Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, Shields' treatise that praises the potentials of essays while putting down both novels and memoirs as past their meaningful prime. Colbert focused the interview on Shields' decision to fill his book with the words of other writers without acknowledging those words to be the words of others. While citations do appear in the back of the book because of the publisher's insistence, Shields told Colbert that he hopes readers will cut out those final nine pages of notes so that Reality Hunger is read "the way that I want it to be read."

Whether Colbert's playful yet hard-hitting questions about plagiarism and "sampling" were primarily sincere or in some way mocking the criticism Shields' volume has already encountered, Shields looked less than heartened by Colbert's singular attention to this aspect of the book.

"Are you the Vanilla Ice of novels?" Colbert asked.

"Precisely," Shields said. "Why can music get away with these exciting moves, why can the visual arts do it, why can you do it? Why is writing weirdly [bound] to nineteenth-century novelistic forms?"

"Why are you bound by the nineteenth-century convention of book?" Colbert went on to ask. "Why didn't you just put this on a Web site, or like Xerox it, and like pass it out on street corners wearing a trash bag for a dress?"

Shields seemed visibly frustrated, defensive, and even sad. And I kind of felt for him. But what I've read of his ideas in interviews and excerpts from Reality Hunger has left me less than convinced of his perspective.

On one level, I really relate to Shields' (and, I think, D'Agata's) desire for "a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation," one that ties stories to "an idea, a philosophical description." After all, I've described my own thesis project (a book-length essay) as a combination of philosophical musings, exegesis, literary criticism, reportage and memoir. And I've written it in first-person, uninterested in somehow disguising or distancing author and speaker and voice. These characteristics to some extent, I think, align my work with the sort of stuff that the Shields camp purports to hunger for.

Shields writes in the 599th numbered paragraph of his manifesto, "I want the veil of 'let's pretend' out. I don't like to be carried into purely fanciful circumstances. The never-never lands of the imagination don't interest me that much. Beckett decided that everything was false to him, almost, in art, with its designs and formulae. He wanted art, but he wanted it right from life. He didn't like, finally, that Joycean voice that was too abundant, too Irish, endlessly lyrical, endlessly allusive ... He wanted to directly address desperate individual existence, which bores many readers. I find him a joyous writer, though; his work reads like prayer. You don't have to think about literary allusions but experience itself. That's what I want from the voice. I want it to transcend artifice."

His terms there at the end--"to transcend artifice"--are terms I'll have to think about for a while. To transcend artifice seems like a wise and interesting idea, but I'm not sure that the forms and novelists (e.g., Jonathan Franzen) that Shields dismisses in Reality Hunger are not doing this sort of thing too. Are most successful literary novels really embodying Shields' simplistic description of them in one interview as tomes that go on and on "in unending chapters" detailing this or that breakup, this or that catastrophe?

"A novel," Shields says in the same interview, "is basically a story-telling mechanism that exists to hold the reader riveted ... it's there to sell a book." Is that truly what a "story" boils down to? Entertainment for those of us more easily enraptured and amused?

"We need to write compressed stories that produce a tone of thought rather than elaborate stories that produce none," Shields goes on to say in the same interview. I guess I just don't see the product, or meaning, of a lot of stories and novels out there in the same dissatisfied way. I've found that many novels do manage in some way to "directly address individual desparate experience" as a human even as they excel at absorbing my imagination and attention as a reader.

Having just finished D'Agata's About a Mountain, I'm still processing what's most promising in these recent nonfiction works. Both D'Agata and Shields cross unexpected lines, whether it be deeply ingrained, cultural expectations about appropriation of the work of others or about how closely an account of real events must stay to the facts. The foggier choices the above authors have made with regard to such issues turn me off to otherwise great work on their part. But are those choices in some ways necessary to that work being what it is? I'm not yet sure what I think.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

AWP highlights

I'm just back from the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) 2010 conference in downtown Denver. Roughly 9,000 people attended the event, monopolizing hotels in the 16th Street Mall area for a four-day period.

Pulitzer-winner Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, etc) was the keynote speaker Thursday night, and his talk was definitely one of the best I've ever witnessed. Funny, deep, intelligent and incredibly modest. Among other things, he shared some of the more sophomoric ideas he included years ago as a young 20-something in his (failed) attempt to secure a Stegner Fellowship as well as his first meeting with a well-known professor in his creative writing program. The professor said simply and deliberately (about Chabon's fiction submission), "I don't like it."

Another highlight of my first experience of AWP was a Saturday-morning panel that included Richard Bausch. A prolific short story writer and novelist, Bausch gave really helpful advice to the many would-be novelists (and already novelists but awaiting completion and publication) in the packed room. He talked about the process as one where you are driving in the dark, and you can see as far ahead as the headlights illumine, but no further. Bausch also discussed the role of failure--frequent failure and doubt--in any endeavor that aims for excellence, giving his own early writing as concrete evidence of this.

The panel that left me most fired up (in both good and bad ways, I think) was one on the place of journalism instruction in creative writing programs. Jim Sheeler, author of the Rocky Mountain News features that became the book Final Salute, was one of five panelists (all journalists) urging their audience of the need for more focus on journalistic skills in the creative writing (particularly creative nonfiction) curriculum. The panelists were all convinced that too often young writers only write about themselves and not about other subjects. While I do sympathize to some degree with their concern for not only this trend but also the need for accuracy in giving a "real-life" account of things, they so emphasized these concerns, with no attention to the idea of nonfiction projects as primarily artful as well as made up of real events, people, etc. It would have been interesting to have someone at the opposite end of the spectrum (e.g., John D'Agata, About a Mountain and The Next American Essay) on the panel as well. Plus somebody somewhere in between the two extremes.

More on AWP later, perhaps. It's lunchtime.

The positive flip-flop

Lane Wallace's post on The Atlantic this morning gets at something I've wondered a lot about with regard to the public sphere. Why is it that so few public figures (as well as private leaders of organizations, churches, etc) have a significant "I was wrong" moment? Wallace's analogy comparing this revision of personal and organizational theories and beliefs (or more often, lack of revision/rethinking) to the way in which scientists are continually obliged to admit error and change their minds and methods is a powerful one.

Wallace notes that Stevens, once in favor of the death penalty, eventually changed his position on the controversial topic after forming "an opinion based not in abstract principle but in years of sorrowful observation of how the death penalty was actually being administered."

"That is, of course, what all good scientists are supposed to do," Wallace writes. "We develop theories, and then we test them, or see how they play out in real life. If reality doesn't behave the way the theory predicted, we're supposed to use that information to modify and improve our theories and opinions. What makes that anecdote about Stevens notable is how few public figures -- or even private individuals, for that matter -- manage that kind of measured re-evaluation of their beliefs or positions, despite how often our theories about business, economics, foreign policy or human behavior prove themselves less perfect in practice than they sounded on paper."

There's often an almost automatic sense of scandal when a politician is revealed (usually through an opponent's ad campaign) to have "flip-flopped" on a given legislative issue. Certainly such instances are interesting to highlight, and well worth exploring, but a change of heart or mind is in itself hardly a character flaw.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Dentriloquists and things

The officemate and I have begun a list of "Words to be Reintroduced into the English Language" on our door in Hoyt Hall. They are the best of the best from a flip-calendar Joe's mom gave me:

1) Aftertale (postscript)
2) Friday-face (a grave or gloomy expression of the countenance)
3) Dentriloquist (one who speaks through the teeth)
4) Gelastic (inclined to laughter)
5) Minuend (the number from which another number is to be subtracted)
6) Metromania (a species of insanity in which the patient evinces a rage for reciting poetry)

Aftertale is just lovely, isn't it? So much better than our modern "P.S." shorthand.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Have I mentioned I like being an aunt? She's looking like a little girl more than a baby every day ...

Come Sunday

Coming from a Sabbatarian background myself, I was interested to read The Atlantic's take on a new book titled The Sabbath World, by Judith Shulevitz. The idea is that a community-implemented, set-aside time of rest--not as a result of divine mandate but simply because it's a good thing civically--would have "social, pragmatic and spiritual utility" in today's harried, disconnected world.

My English 1010 students have been discussing an extended excerpt from Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, and many of them are convinced that Putnam is right in his assessment of America's civic health (he argues that it's on the decline). Individualism, most of my students believe, has completely overrun collective, communal concerns. I'll have to alert them to Shulevitz's book as one good idea for how to stem this trend. But, as the Atlantic review asks, how practical/feasible is it, really, to think of re-instituting Sabbath practices?

European societies appear less stressed and rat-race like. Afternoon naps, 30-or-so-hour work weeks, etc. Are these practices the result of workplace and community policies or something deeper in the cultural soul? My guess is that it's the latter.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Much more than a proofreader

I'd heard that President Obama writes at least some of his speeches, and this photo confirms his skills as a thinker, writer, editor and orator:

That's not proofreading. That's some expert wordsmithing there.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Getting there

So, I know there's no need whatsoever for a thesis project to have a cover, but I had some fun putting this together today. As I'm making final changes and additions to my novella-length essay, it's nice to imagine it with a cover of some sort. I have a printout of it sitting on the desk to inspire me to finish well.

(The picture is of Prim Point lighthouse on Prince Edward Island where I got to camp out for a week of thesis writing last fall. It's a beautiful place, full of sea, steeple, rock, wind. Go in the off season, when it's quiet and all your own. Just remember to bring a coat.)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Three writers in one evening

Tomorrow's Emerging Writers Symposium here in Laramie features Gaby Calvocoressi (poetry), Glen Pourciau (fiction) and Nicole Walker (nonfiction and poetry). I'm curious to ask Nicole if she prefers one genre to the other. Reading some of her poems and a couple essays this week, she seems to be a wiz with both. I'll be introducing her tomorrow night at the reading at Second Story Books.

My favorite lines of hers so far? From a prose poem in her book This Noisy Egg: "Both my grandmothers collect birds. The one, the one with the foil, collects the cardboard-sculpted, mantle-shaped polyester kind. My other grandma--stale bread folded in her pocket--and a long walk from her house to the park. She keeps birds inside her coat. She opens the bread sack and out come symphonies of ducks."

Loquacious sleeper

Zzz ... I'd heard people talk in their sleep now and then, but I'd never been privy to truly eloquent speech from a dreamer until this week, when Alisa (roomie) burst into the following monologue:

"Hahahahaha, that's awkward. Those used to happen to me all the time. Oh, who am I kidding?! That still happens to me."

Witnessing her rem-cycled conversation as I came in the bedroom, long after she'd already hit the sack, was an event I will cherish years from now.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Frustrating inertia on "don't ask, don't tell"

I wasn't aware just how many service members have been impacted by the law put in place in 1993 requiring gays in the military to hide their sexual orientation. More than 13,000 members have been discharged as a result of the law--11,000 of them since 1997 according to The Huffington Post. The law has yet to be repealed, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates just announced new rules that are a positive first step.

Gates said that the changes, which basically put higher-ranking officials in charge of cases and make it tougher to bring allegations against someone, will provide "a greater measure of common sense and common decency" for handling situations related to the gay ban. And it looks like a full repeal of the ban may be on the horizon. Yet many officials and politicians worry that a big change to the policy "might undermine military cohesion and effectiveness" even if they agree that "don't ask, don't tell" is problematic.

And I find that pretty frustrating. In a realm marked by sexism and sexual abuse, the military has bigger fish to fret over. One in three women in the military experience sexual assault. One in three. And the penalties for the few perpetrators caught are often ridiculously minor in comparison to the crimes.

What if we worked a little harder on minimizing violence and intimidation and things instead of accommodating homophobia?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A good song ...

... one that makes me want to get up and clog and hug the people I love, is Mitch & Mickey's "When You're Next To Me" from A Mighty Wind. Give it a listen at

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Today's vote

I'm hoping it really happens today ...

"I will not walk away from these Americans, and neither should the people in this chamber." -President Obama

Friday, March 19, 2010

A seriously befuddling and beautiful film

Both Joe (my boyfriend) and I wish one of us had written Dana Stevens' review of A Serious Man for Slate. This latest of the Coen films I take to be a replaying of the dilemmas hashed out and never really resolved in the book of Job. Stevens' commentary gets at this, noting that the Coens are "as unforthcoming with their secrets as God is to poor Larry," the movie's protagonist. It's not a film to go into expecting to understand it, but it is a film well worth seeing. And I kind of loved the inscrutability of it, the way in which A Serious Man embodies Larry's growing sense of randomness about his misfortunes."Larry has always considered himself a good man," Stevens writes, "but this convergence of ill fortune throws him into a spiritual crisis. He tries to consult with three rabbis. The youngest (Simon Hellberg) can offer only chipper platitudes, the second (George Wyner) recounts an oft-told and apparently pointless story he calls 'The Goy's Teeth,' and the third, the ancient and venerated Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), refuses to see him."

I think we need these stories, stories told with a sense of perplexity, fate and humor that reflects our efforts to make sense of life.

Insects as vaccines

My personal impressions of and interactions with bugs have almost always been negative, but the reasons for this unfortunate nature of our relationship are not limited to general squeamishness and fear on my part. At least that's what I'm gleaning from Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War by Jeffrey Lockwood, my thesis chair.

I have far yet to go in the book, but already Lockwood's case is sensitizing me to the ways in which insects and the minor or major pestilences they carry with them have captured human imagination from ancient times until now. In a section exploring the role of insects in Old Testament history and theology, Lockwood notes that Yawheh was "perceived as an entomologically astute deity" and that what he needed "was nature's arsenal--blights that aroused a deep sense of mystery and fear. Winning a war by 'shock and awe' would render a conquered foe psychologically beaten and culturally disheartened" (11). Lockwood goes on to detail the prominent role of insects in the plagues that are recorded to have come upon the land of Egypt in the story of the Exodus. Six of the ten plagues, he argues, employed insects (ranging from gnats to flies to locusts) as combatants.

So my dislike of these critters is not unique. I am drawing on full-bodied cultural memory when I slap at mosquitoes, when I gag in panic after breathing in a cloud of gnats during a summer jog by the river, when I can't concentrate or sleep after seeing a spider (I know, not an insect technically, but still) in my room and then losing track of it by the time I return from the bathroom with a tissue or two (or three, to cushion the awful crunch of my intended killing).

But there are other ways to think about bugs, to think about them in more positive terms. On an emotional level, stories like Charlotte's Web remind me of their valuable place in the biological world--and that most of them, individually, really aren't as sinister, as bent on my destruction or disease, as I imagine them to be.

On a whole different level, what if we think about them not as the messengers of pestilence but as a means of promoting health? That seems to be what a researcher from a university in Japan is up to, according to CNN. He led a project that has successfully altered a certain species of mosquito so that it carries a vaccination for malaria within its saliva rather than the disease itself. At least in lab mice, the mosquito's bites resulted in a transfer of the vaccine to the host. Wow.

But given our sensitive relationship to the insect world, are we prepared for such switches of perspective? Apparently the researchers "admit that there are barriers to using this form of vaccination in the wild, including issues of controlling dosage, 'medical safety issues' and the 'issues of public acceptance to [the] release of transgenic mosquitoes.'"

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Some grand prose I wish I'd written

This is from Brad Watson's novel, The Heaven of Mercury ...

"On her deathbed he'd been there, holding her hand. She'd looked at him, her red-rimmed eyes brimming with tears. -You ruined my life, she said in her strained and halting voice. He'd only nodded, squeezed and patted her hand. And later that night, she'd passed on. That was just Avis, she'd needed to say it. He never for a moment thought that, in her heart, she believed it was all that simple."

I like being an aunt.

That's my piano-prodigy niece with my sister. And here's a video my nephew made on his own to thank Grandma for a gift ...

Friday, March 12, 2010


Just ran across an interesting, extended article by Andrew Sullivan in a late 2008 issue of The Atlantic titled Why I Blog. His description of the nature of the blog sounds in some ways much like essayist John D'Agata's fresh definitions of the essay form.

D'Agata (who visited UW last Thursday and Friday) talks about the essay as an attempt, an experiment, or, as he particularly describes what he calls the lyric essay in his Next American Essay anthology, "a kind of logic that wants to sing." Sullivan's terms for blogs aren't exactly the same, but the sense of unfinished-ness, of uncertainty and leap-taking, is similar. Sullivan writes of the blog phenomenon, "Its truths are provisional, and its ethos collective and messy." D'Agata emphasized during Q+A after last week's reading that in attempting to address the questions it sets out exploring, a true essay is less likely to arrive at clear answers than embody a measure of "clarity" regarding the subject at hand.

Both forms -- essay and blog -- seem comfortable with imperfection and complication. And both authors (Sullivan and D'Agata) are in the position of shaping and heralding the characteristics of these modern forms of written communication. But Sullivan and D'Agata also understand that these contemporary compositional trends are not so new as they may seem. D'Agata dedicates much discussion (in his essay anthologies) to the long-lived tradition of "essaying," as he puts it. And Sullivan roots the idea of blogging in this tradition as well, pointing to Montaigne as a kind of blogger: "Montaigne was living his skepticism, daring to show how a writer evolves, changes his mind, learns new things, shifts perspectives, grows older--and that this, far from being something that needs to be hidden behind a veneer of unchanging authority, can become a virtue ..."

Entertaining angels of a sort

There's a lovely new tavern by Sweet Melissa's in downtown Laramie, and members of the MFA bid farewell to visiting writer Edward P. Jones (The Known World) there this afternoon. Jones was with us for a month giving readings, interviews, workshops and manuscript consultations.

Jones is the last of three eminent guests to the MFA during the 2009-2010 term, and each of them have been wonderful to speak and work with. I've gleaned helpful techniques from the sentence-level style of poet Claudia Rankine's work (Don't Let Me Be Lonely), and I'm interested in her attention to what may appear at first, or to less focused faculties, to be ordinary or unremarkable.

Earlier this spring renowned journalist Philip Gourevitch visited UW for two weeks, and I'm very much in awe of his work, particularly We Write to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families. One particular suggestion he provided while discussing a segment of my own work was, "You're in a position to imagine sympathetically this faith community [that you're leaving]." This concern for an accurate, understanding portrayal of the complex people and events involved in a conflict (whether it be a large-scale conflict such as the Rwandan genocide or a minute, more personal one like a crisis of religious faith) is increasingly important to me, and it was good to hear Gourevitch reinforce this concern. I'm going to miss these opportunities after I leave the MFA in a couple months.