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What is the purpose of blog comments?

Tuesday August 24, 2010 @ 01:33 PM (UTC)

A while back, Ryan mentioned to me that he may remove the capacity to comment from his blog, wonko.com. This rocked my world. No comments? But blogs have comments! It’s a universal constant! Okay, so I exaggerated there. Sure, I’ve seen comments-disabled posts, often on touchy or personal matters, on otherwise comment-enabled blogs. And I’ve visited a few blogs with no comment system. It tends to have a more…austere feeling. Like a museum, rather than a tearoom. Comments invite you to stay a while and have a scone. No comments? You are invited to move along to the next exhibit.

Ryan tends to think things through, so he had plenty of arguments against the necessity of comments for his blog. His blog is increasingly about technical matters. I pointed out that people like to discuss these matters, and he pointed out that they are welcome to do so by e-mail or on twitter. If their comment is longer than 140 characters, he pointed out, they’re welcome to post it on their own blog and send him a link. Obviously, he has a point.

Different blog spaces carry different necessities. I read a fair amount of social justice blogs, like Racialicious and Feministe. Part of their purpose is discussion — lively at times — and to provide a space dedicated to hashing out issues, often nominally or actually “safe” for those participating. Many major blogs of this type even have “open threads” from time to time, where the management offers no guidance on what the commentariat should mull. Obviously, these blogs are part forum.

But my blog isn’t like that. I am glad it’s not. Writing a social justice blog means setting yourself up as an authority and giving yourself a certain responsibility to keep up with and comment on current events. That’s admirable, but it’s not the path I’ve chosen in life. I’ve chosen to be a fiction writer, which means a certain amount of dreamy detachment is part, parcel, perquisite and peril of my vocation. Some of my blog posts ask for audience participation, but some of them don’t.

I can see some arguments against comments in general. Where the commentariat is largely people one knows, there is a sort of social pressure. If I post good news, do you have to publicly fête me? I like congratulations as much as the next person, but I don’t want to make anyone feel they must pipe up. (I’m the sort of person who tends to send off-list congratulations to on-list good news, so obviously I’m a little weird about the dynamic of clapping people on the back in front of a crowd.) In other cases, I’ve heard people talk about the social pressure of commenting – someone you don’t know or barely know comments on your blog, so you feel you have to comment on theirs.

This brings me back to the responsibilities of blogging: I don’t want to ever be in a position where I have to blog about something. If something dreadful happens in the world – which happens all too often – I usually feel that my perspective on it is redundant, if not useless. I may feel stunned and wordless. Political bloggers and social justice bloggers seem to have a socially mandated duty to speak on current events. I never want to be there. Neither do I want to be committed to post everything of a certain sort in my own life — every time I make a pie, for instance (I guarantee you, while it makes useful filler here and there, that I don’t post every pie I make!). There’s too much speaking for speaking’s sake in the world. That isn’t a call for seriousness, by any means: anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I am chock-full of nonsense. What I am advocating is sincerity. Don’t blog if you don’t feel it. Don’t comment if you don’t want to (and if you do want to, don’t feel constrained!)

And if you do want to respond to something, I hope you have the space or make the space. Ryan’s point that would-be commenters can post on their own blogs is well taken. Even in the forum-like bustle of large social justice sites, people take a step back into their own spaces and respond there. A long comment may not get much attention when it’s attached to someone else’s work. On your own blog, it has the chance to breathe, to be read on its own merits and for its own sake. Much of what we want to say in the world is a response: to someone else’s speech, yes, or to our own lives, our own experiences, to nature or culture. Maybe it would be silly to start a blog just because you wanted to comment on someone’s post and comments were locked. But maybe it will happen again, and again. Maybe you should have, if not a blog, a text document on your own computer. Even if you don’t need or want anyone else to hear, hearing yourself is vital and healthy.

Maybe I’ll close down comments on a post here and there. I experimented with this on the most recent update on my upcoming story. Just the facts, ma’am, and no meaty topic for discussion. But upon reflection, I’ll be keeping comments open on most posts here. I like the idea of putting out tea and biscuits for all comers.

This blog’s purpose has shifted over the years. When I began, I hoped to share a few silly anecdotes, but mostly give myself room to write and hear myself. I needed a place for words and creativity in a life that didn’t otherwise hold that space. Now my life fully inhabits those spaces, and the blog serves to share — my news, my nonsense, things that make me laugh, delight me, or make me think. It’s my blog, but I need to believe you’re a part of it. I’ll definitely be keeping comments, but I’m glad to have considered the question. Rethinking and questioning keeps blogs, as well as people, healthy.

Spider Summer

Friday August 20, 2010 @ 11:56 AM (UTC)
"Nest" by Louise Bourgeois
Nest by the late Louise Bourgeois, at SFMoMA

I’m not a summer person. It’s the heat, the unaccustomed dryness. It’s the contrast with the cloudier, rainier summers I remember or imagine from my youth. But these hot temperatures, these gentle breaths of air, these verdant trees stretching out their branches to reach something – each other, the eaves of a house, the railing of a stair – have made an army of creatures in my environs very, very happy.

You notice it first through the kitchen window: a row of lovely spirals bobbing over the lace-leaf maple. Then there are the front stairs, shaded by a lilac tree — a succession of webs. I leave my house now waving my hands like an aspiring zombie, flailing my keys or mail, or bobbing my head from side to side to locate the gem of a spider floating in midair. I trust the neighbors to understand. Once, past the stairs, striding confidently into the wide, unspider-spannable world, I took a web to the face. I got to the car to find spiders busy on the mirror and windshield-wipers.

Leaving the house might seem to be the trouble – the screen door in the back stuck to its frame by an empty egg sac, the large spider that hit my head like a pebble when I stepped through the front door last week – but indoors we find little refuge. I was scrubbing my hair one day in my basement bathroom when I noticed a tiny spider, the color of wilted celery, busy building his first web in the frame of a window above my shower. At the bottom of the sill, another. Another two setting up shop at the top of the shower stall. Another investigating my back brush. This was positively friendly compared to the day when I was drying off and a wolf spider with a silver-dollar leg-radius dropped out of my towel and skittered for the safety under the laundry machines.

I try, gazing out of my window at the row of dessicated egg sacs lining the undersides of the eaves like reversed icicles, to remember that spiders are here to help me, too. I try to think of these lines of white husks as defense: against wasp nests, against the swarming air power of mosquitoes. I do try.

Then I see another spider on the wall and call the cat, who comes bounding. It may be the tone in my voice that tells her it’s time to hunt, but I suspect she has learned the creepetty-crawletty little word: SPIDER.

In King Lear, Act II, scene 4, you can find one of my favorite quotable morsels of Shakespeare. A friend of mine recently blogged about truncations of Shakespeare that change the meaning, so I’ve been wondering if my delight in this little line is a similar sin. In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll put the full text of the speech, with my favorite bit in bold. I’m keeping my delight, though. I can’t help it.

[Having found his follower in the stocks, Lear is now also shorn of his retinue by his daughters.]

KING LEAR:
O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s: thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need,—
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
If it be you that stir these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women’s weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks! No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall—I will do such things,—
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
You think I’ll weep
No, I’ll not weep:
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I’ll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!

Even in context, the bold line is, I’d maintain, funny. I snicker when I hear it said onstage. It’s also very unfunny — Lear has, after all, lost his power and is now losing his faculties. That’s terrifying and, for those lucky enough to grow old, inevitable. The form of the speech underlines this reading: it starts out rhetorically perfect and personally sharp – the stab at his daughters’ necklines is great. But by this point in the speech he can no longer name his threats. And of course, if he could, he would have no power to carry them out. His inability to name his revenge may be part of his failing mental powers, but also perhaps a realization or reflection of his relinquished secular powers.

For the audience, who are not failing monarchs, these words still have resonance: this is an all too familiar sensation – that feeling of being so angry that any coherent expression of it is beyond you. “You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!” he says, in the first break in his fluency. That feeling is, if not universal, then incredibly accessible. That gives it a rueful humor, makes it a little sweet amidst all this bitterness.

I can’t help but also think of it as a rather writerly shorthand. “[Insert awful threats here]”, if you will. The truly fanciful might imagine Shakespeare running out of polemical gas here, scribbling a placeholder, then realizing how perfectly that would work in Lear’s fury.

And lastly, of course, it’s just damn funny. Because believe me, when I finally think of what I’m going to do, it’ll be awesome. It shall be the terror of the earth.

Inception

Tuesday August 03, 2010 @ 03:22 PM (UTC)

So, since I started using The Twitter, I haven’t posted a lot of extremely short bloggets. That’s why I haven’t blogged about Inception: I didn’t really have anything more to say than I put in this tweet:

Apart from bits of expo-rich clunky dialogue (& mild Zimmer) Inception was FANTASTIC. Best movie I’ve seen in a while. Don’t read, just go!

I didn’t want to give you spoilers. Or information of any sort. I went in totally without knowledge (I knew it was sci-fi, who directed and who starred. That was it.) and that felt perfect.

But I felt like it was worth reiterating in a shockingly content-free way for my blog readers who may not be on Twitter: Inception. Very good. So good I wondered while still in the foyer of the theatre whether there should be a cooling-off period or I should just add it to my list of favorite movies right away. So good Kyle and I spent 13 loooong pages of instant messages discussing and praising it the other day. So good I don’t really care too much that Hans Zimmer did the soundtrack (on first watching. It may really bother me on second watching, we’ll see.)

So please, do as I say: read nothing about the plot or premise, just go see the movie. If you like that sort of thing. And by that sort of thing, I mean Christopher Nolan, science fiction, or movies that are awesome.

Home places

Tuesday August 03, 2010 @ 01:58 PM (UTC)
Grants Pass sunriseGrants Pass sunrise, taken by my cousin

I recently spent the week with my grandmother, engaging in family traditions such as DeCourcey-rules Scrabble, Jeopardy! viewership, and politely refusing to put Grandma to the trouble of baking powder biscuits at breakfast, then politely eating upwards of three.

We also discussed, in passing, the possibility that she will move soon. While we were discussing it, my mind was very much on the implications for her, and perhaps for the rest of my Scrabble-ating tribe. But some days afterward, I realized that once my grandmother leaves Grants Pass, none of my family will live there. I won’t have any cause to visit, and the sort of half-citizenship of that little burg in Southern Oregon that I have long enjoyed will quite dissolve.

My family—the other side, as it happens—moved to Southern Oregon in the early 20th century. My Oklahoman great-great-grandfather came for a promotion with the railroad, and brought his family. My Canadian great-grandfather came for a lumber industry job, married the daughter of the aforementioned railroad man. They lived in the little town of Glendale, 28 miles away from Grants Pass through thick conifer forests. My maternal grandparents moved to Medford, then Grants Pass, after World War II, and Grandpa started a business. Most non-Native Westerners’ family stories are stories of migration, and our stories brought us to Grants Pass, the nexus of my recent genealogy.

Is that the only reason I love Grants Pass? That my parents met in the halls of the old Grants Pass High School (now demolished), drawn together by their identical paperback copies of The Two Towers? That my Grandpa is buried in a woodland cemetery outside of town, bright with dry grass and the sound of insects? That my family orbited around that valley for generations, and even now I feel it’s our home planet?

I don’t know. I think we have a powerful drive to connect to places. For me, the Willamette Valley feels like home, with its waterfalls, rain, its particular shades of green. But most of us—I know I speak for myself and Taran of Caer Dallben, at least—have a desire to know where we came from. It manifests in genealogical research, in recording family reminiscences, in sequencing our DNA, and in attaching ourselves to places.

My parents moved to the Portland area about 9 months before I was born, and before that lived for a few years in Eugene. I have never lived in Grants Pass for more than 3 weeks or so, but I’ve become accustomed to ‘owning’ it, to thinking it’s part of me. When people mention it (or name anthologies after it), I perk up my ears. My car still has its Grants Pass license plate surround. I know the GPHS colors, remember feeding the ducks at Riverside Park, have walked the main street, passed under the “It’s the Climate” sign, had many milkshakes at the old soda parlor in the Grants Pass Pharmacy. I feel at home in that bowl of blue-green hills. Even though I’m a proud Portlander, I know my roots are in small towns like Grants Pass and Glendale, Llanfyrnach and Marvejols and Taupinet. Perhaps that’s silly, or meaningless, or maudlin, but I’ll be sorry when there are no more DeCourceys in Grants Pass, when I am only a traveler passing through, and not a native grandchild returning.

It's always time for pie!

Thursday July 29, 2010 @ 10:21 AM (UTC)

Here’s my latest pie, a Lattice-Top Deep-Dish Sour Cherry Pie from Ken Haedrich’s Pie: 300 Tried-And-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie.

Lattice-Top Deep-Dish Sour Cherry Pie

This is my first cherry pie! I’d meant to make a Rainier Cherry pie, but it’s a little late in the season now — my local grocery has a few, but not enough for a pie. Instead I perused the stalls at my local farmer’s market and bought these locally grown pie cherries. No verdict yet on the taste — the recipe calls for 1.25 cups of sugar plus three tablespoons and I forgot the tablespoons — but it looks pretty good.

Update: Ryan has spoken. The pie is good!

I just got my subscriber copy of September’s Asimov’s Science Fiction, so I can now tell you that October/November’s double issue, with my new story “The Termite Queen of Tallulah County”, will be on newsstands August 31!

On a less self-serving note, the September issue contains a story by Campbell Award-winning and all-around wonder Mary Robinette Kowal, who lives in Portland. The August issue, which is still on newsstands for three days only, contains the first published story by Pam Rentz, another great writer of my local acquaintance (she lives in Vancouver.) It’s quite the run of Northwesty scribblers Asimov’s has going (I noticed Kristine Kathryn Rusch in July’s ish, too).

Does a shiny new copy of Asimov’s come to your postbox ten times a year? If not, why not?

I've been Calvin's-Dadded!

Tuesday July 20, 2010 @ 11:51 AM (UTC)

The other morning, I started to type out a tweet. It would eventually be this tweet, declaring my love for my iPhone 4, no matter its overhyped failings. But when I typed it, I typed “I’m glad Apple isn’t responding to this foofraff with a recall…” Then I stared at the word ‘foofraff’, which even as I type it now I hear in my father’s voice, in tones of exasperation. To me, it means “mess”. Used in a phrase: “all this foofraff!” But I wasn’t really sure, so I searched. No hits on Yahoo! Search for foofraff. None. On Google, one…in Polish. It seems not to mean anything in Polish either.

I called my dad. “Dad, I have a very unimportant question for you.”

“Yes?”

“What does ‘foofraff’ mean?”

“Nothing, as far as I know. It’s one of those coined words with no particular meaning.”

“And who coined this word?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“It wasn’t by any chance…you?”

My father claims innocence, but how do you explain this nonsense word only he, I, and some person in Poland use? It isn’t the only one. The internet uses “smoorg” but I’m not sure it uses it in our familial sense of “mix together” (Dad says this is “smoog” and comes from the divine Pogo). I constantly have to define “feh” for Ryan (it’s short for “feculence”, obviously!) My dad makes up nicknames for everything from restaurants to electronics stores, and I’ve no doubt he’s gotten creative with slang and nonsense, too.

I also discovered during my brief flirtation with NaNoWriMo five years ago that a whole phylum of my father’s vocabulary came from an unexpected source. I was trying to shrug off my perfectionism by writing pulp. Of course, I started trying to write perfect pulp, and I researched my vocabulary accordingly. My favorite resource was Twists, Slug and Roscoes, which is where I found favored parental word glom and rarer birds like spondulix, as well as more common idioms like cheese it, dingus, hinky, and noodle (in the sense of “use your”). I use these words quite freely, and never realized I might sound like a “wise dame”.

Now sure, you may think that my dad just enjoyed a few issues of Ellery Queen’s in his formative years alongside his Amazing Stories. But perhaps this whole thing has been a linguistic experiment to set his children up with totally outlandish vocabularies. (Or make them play with language until they are compelled to become writers.) Sure, there are only a few examples here, but that’s the whole point: I won’t know how weird the words are until I use them in public.

Unlike Calvin’s Dad, my dad gave me full and, as far as science can be definitive, accurate particulars on why the sky is blue, when dinosaurs roamed, and why old photos are black and white. But his systematic campaign of linguistic misinformation is only now beginning to emerge!

Fruits of the Forest Pie

Monday July 12, 2010 @ 01:54 PM (UTC)

In Ken Haedrich’s Pie: 300 Tried-And-True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie, he guesses that the name “Fruits of the Forest Pie” originally applied to a mixed-nut pie, since nuts do actually come from the forest. At some point the name inspired mixed fruit pies, too.

Since I’m allergic to tree nuts, the idea of a mixed nut pie is frightening: I can just handle making, say, a pecan pie for my dad, or a hazelnut pie for Ryan, but multiple types of nuts at once? What if while I’m watching one type of nut, the other two flank me, like in Jurassic Park? Mixed fruit pie doesn’t inspire these delusional ramblings, so that’s what I’ve made:

Closeup of coarse sugar glaze
Fruits of the Forest Pie with coarse sugar glaze

The crust is, as usual, from the family recipe, while the glaze and filling are Haedrich-approved. The filling includes apple, pear, peaches, blueberries, strawberries and pineapple. Won’t find all those in any forest near you.

List slippers

Saturday July 10, 2010 @ 02:54 PM (UTC)
It’s always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is much less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks. -Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

In my last blog post, I meant to include this quote. (In fact, at one point I intended to call the post “Collecting List Slippers” in its honor.)

In context, O’Connor refers to Madame Bovary:

Sometimes she would draw; and it was great amusement to Charles to stand there bolt upright and watch her bend over her cardboard, with eyes half-closed the better to see her work, or rolling, between her fingers, little bread-pellets. As to the piano, the more quickly her fingers glided over it the more he wondered. She struck the notes with aplomb, and ran from top to bottom of the keyboard without a break. Thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff’s clerk, passing along the highroad bare-headed and in list slippers, stopped to listen, his sheet of paper in his hand.

In yet further explanation, I proffer this link about the nature of list slippers, shoes made, sole and all, from fabric and thus very quiet to walk in. (Although in the quote above, I think their informality rather than their stealth is their primary characteristic.)

Okay, so obviously this quote needs a lot of unpacking, and perhaps it’s just as well that I left it out of the other post. But it also deserves more than the slight mention I’ve already given it — it’s a massively important point about writing made succinctly and pungently. I think of these list slippers every other day or so.

As everyone’s friend John Gardner writes in his Art of Fiction, “If we carefully inspect our experience as we read, we discover that the importance of physical detail is that it creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind.” As writers, we are trying to do so many things: amuse, inspire, impassion. But we have to see the small as well as the large. We build our castles in the air one brick at a time. Everything matters, from list slippers and the buzz of piano strings up to despair and delusion.

Everything matters. How could I not love that?

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