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Does this really work on anyone?

Monday June 16, 2008 @ 10:31 AM (UTC)

Since I’ve been a member of the World Wildlife Fund since age 14, my name has gotten on the lists of many conservation organizations. So much so, in fact, that I no longer need to buy return address labels or jot pads. Ever.

Regardless of the superfluity of these items that I have accumulated, I save them and I am vaguely pleased by their appearance in my mailbox; it isn’t just another thing to recycle. I’m not sure the address labels will have any effect on which organization I add to my giving when my ship comes in, but I have a vague goodwill as a result of them. So they sort of work.

You know what doesn’t work? Putting a celebrity’s name on the return address label. This week I got yet another letter from Leonardo DiCaprio touting some conservation org. He’s the biggest offender, but I’m not excited by getting mail from Paul Newman, either (sorry, sister sledge). In fact, in all my years, I remember being excited by this tactic precisely once: when I was eleven. “Mommy, Mommy, Bill Clinton wrote to you!” She smiled indulgently and I learned about boring form letters with star-power return addresses.

Does this work on anyone? Is there some sliver of the population so DiCaprio-loving that they will do whatever he broadcasts? Because by sending them to me, they are only moving paper from ‘new’ to ‘postconsumer’. And there are never, ever, free address labels in a star-power begging letter.

Highway 101 has it in for me.

Friday June 13, 2008 @ 11:45 PM (UTC)

I picked up a nail in my tire tonight. It was by no means obvious, but I think it happened on a short jaunt on 101 from Mt. View, where I was gaming with friends new and old, to the Queequeg’s Qoffee Qasa where I toil. It was not until the sign of the mighty Pequod, its sails emblazoned with the coffee bean, was extinguished and the doors of Queequeg’s were locked behind its weary employees that I saw the flat tire.

Previous misadventures, including several memorable hours stranded on the shoulder on a lofty freeway interchange (also tire-related), convinced me to pay the semi-yearly pittance for roadside assistance, and the truck appeared before my fellow Queequegger and I could budge the lugnuts. I took the long way home, via surface streets. But really, tires and 101 both have it in for me. And the two together? Oh lordy.

Unlike some fictional characters who masquerade as real people among us, I think I will celebrate my tire mishap with a patch or a new tire, followed closely by a mango-strawberry smoothie at Queequeg’s. Not a new sports car. That’s just how I roll. Slowly, cautiously, and under 55 miles per hour on a compact spare.

Neko Case

Thursday June 12, 2008 @ 08:52 PM (UTC)

One of the reasons I like iTunes, despite its habit of freezing if it encounters an ogg vorbis file, is the data it collects on how often I’ve played a song, and the convenient opportunity to rate songs so that my favorites pop up in the ‘My Top Rated’ smart playlist. Accordingly, I try to remember to rate songs when I notice they aren’t rated yet. The other day I noticed a few songs weren’t rated on Neko Case’s Blacklisted. So as I listened, I rated them all. Then I realized I had not rated a single song on that album below four stars. The entire album makes the cut for ‘My Top Rated’.

I must admit, I only have two albums by Neko Case, Blacklisted and Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, although I sincerely wonder why I haven’t tracked down the others, and checked out her work with Canadian bands. Neko Case is a singer/songwriter from Washington. She has a voice that can operate on levels from ‘smoky’ to ‘pure’, and quite possibly inhabit both extremes at once. She has impressive power, a good range, and a beautiful, distinctive timbre. If I had to have someone else’s voice instead of my own, I would choose Neko Case.

Her songs tend towards a lush, filled-in sound marked with big echoing Hazlewood-Eddy style guitar work. I see her most often described as alt-country, but there are obvious soul influences in her work as well as the folksy and blue-grass elements you might expect. I love the sense of space in her songs, the way her voice and her guitar just expand like the air over the badlands. There’s a real Westernness to her music that, for me, is independent of the ‘country’ touches. There’s a menace and beauty that coexist in many of her lyrics and songs. In my ear this evokes the intersection between the world of humans and the natural world, the way forces co-mingle in the big empty places between our cities.

Neko Case’s music is smart, beautiful and haunting. If you haven’t given her a listen yet, why are you sittin’ here reading me?

The Wire and literary form

Tuesday June 10, 2008 @ 04:22 PM (UTC)

This is more or less a review of HBO’s The Wire, all 5 seasons of which I devoured within this calendar year. However, it’s also a rambling musing about the nature of the novel.

I was glad to see Jervey Tervalon say in his piece in A Public Space Issue 5, “The Revenge of the Angry Black Artist”:

Oddly enough, what gives me hope is that shining light of literary ambition, the astonishing Wire. The HBO television series that aspires to be the War and Peace of the declining American city…

Mr. Tervalon is praising the “complex and integrated representation of African-American life” on the show, but the terms in which he’s done it are the same ones I have been using myself to express the scope of the show: it’s a novel. I started digging, and discovered that, just as we geeks know that JMS said Babylon 5 was a novel in television form, The Wire’s creator, David Simon, has called his show a “visual novel” or just “a novel” in interviews. has concurred.

So apparently I’m in good company. But this verdict on The Wire gives rise to the question, what the hell is a novel anyway?

Being a good little writing student (in a few weeks, a highly credentialed writing professional), I run right to John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. Okay, so my copy is packed in a box, so I search the internet for kernels of wisdom from The Art of Fiction. Luckily, Gardner is heavily quoted:

A novel is like a symphony in that its closing movement echoes and resounds with all that has gone before. [snip comparison with novella] Toward the close of a novel, the writer brings back – directly or in the form of his characters recollections – images, characters, events, and intellectual motifs encountered earlier. Unexpected connections begin to surface; hidden causes become plain; life becomes, however briefly and unstably, organized, the universe reveals itself if only for the moment, as inexorably moral; the outcome of various characters’ actions is at least manifest and we shall see the responsibility of free will. It is this closing orchestration that the novel exists for. If such a close does not come, for whatever theoretically good reason, we shut the book with feelings of dissatisfaction, as if cheated.

This is a pretty tall order (and, as Gardner admits, assumes a moral authorial universe). It is, in fact, an aspirational definition rather than a pragmatic one. The pragmatic one is some variation on “long written, fictional, prose narrative” (this phrasing from Wikipedia). Even we starry-eyed litgeeks use this definition, or else how can you explain my having applied the tag “novel” to things like Whisker of Evil?

Is the aspirational definition even useful, riven as it is by contradiction? (Even Gardner says both “It imitates the world in all its complexity; we not only look closely at various characters, we hear rumors of distant wars and marriages, we glimpse characters whom, like people on the subway, we will never see again. Too much neatness in a novel kills the novel’s fundamental effect.” and “The novel is elegant and efficient; that is, it does not use more scenes, characters, physical details, and technical devices than it needs to do its job.”) Is the existence and maintenance of this idealized ‘novel’ just a symptom of parochial literary thinking – a way of justifying the novel’s centrality in literary discourse and marketing, its place as the proof of an aspiring author’s skill and seriousness, its pervasiveness in the canon? After all, it doesn’t sound so impressive if we say that in order to be taken seriously, a writer must prove she or he can write a really long story.

Perhaps the place where the heroic concept of ‘novel’ really comes in handy is the place I stand now: trying to use a literary term outside the literary medium. The Wire, expanding as it does from a smart cops-and-dealers show in the first season to consider the problems of the working class, local politics, the school system and the press in the later seasons, has a social conscience that Dickens might have had, born into this century instead of his own. Certainly the moment when Bodie, young street dealer moving up in the business, first leaves Baltimore and learns that radio stations are localized, echoes for me as resonantly as “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.”

But perhaps Mr. Tervalon’s Tolstoy analogy is more apt; I admit, I haven’t read War and Peace, but the sprawling multi-protagonist nature of The Wire is far from the Pipcentric ways of Dickens. Watching the first few episodes of The Wire, my mind tried to select a protagonist. McNulty is the obvious first candidate, the first main character introduced, and indeed sometimes stands out in front in pictures like a lead singer. For the first half of the first episode, the camera switches between Detectives McNulty (later absent for almost an entire season) and Greggs, in the manner we viewers have come to understand designates protagonists. But soon enough we are following a young drug dealer, sitting in on police Majors’ meetings, and watching dope addicts fake ten-dollar bills. This is already a sprawling story, one hour in.

As for the cops, our natural tendency is to seek ‘clean’ protagonists. When we see a blame-shifting, overloaded departments with Majors who use the n-word, we look for the saving graces, for the Lt. Gordons who will make up for the ugliness of the fictional world. McNulty is too driven, too drunk, so we turn to Kima Greggs. I remember this distinctly from my first viewing, my initial investment in Greggs as the ‘good cop’. She’s responsible, dedicated, smart, kind to confidential informants. I remember at the end of the third episode, when Bodie punched a cop and Carver started beating him with a nightstick while another cop held him. Greggs came running, and I can still remember the way my disappointment mixed with the realization of my own naiveté as she started kicking the prone teenager.

Brutal, isn’t it? But that’s when I realized how great this show was. They knew my instinct would be to reject the cops as a whole and cling to one cop as a paragon. I feel pretty sure they set me up for that moment, the realization that this show was going to try to reflect life, the messed-up, imperfect people working within a deeply flawed system. I couldn’t idolize Kima Greggs. And I couldn’t reject drunken McNulty, or violent Carver, or career-minded Daniels. I had to understand them instead, accept them all as humans with good points and bad. Cops, criminals, addicts, dockworkers, politicians, teachers, reporters: human and complex. Like they are.

The world The Wire shows us is not pretty, but it forces a perspective we are usually able to ignore in our day-to-day lives, pushes us to see all the shades of grey. As Gardner’s ideal novel does in the quote above, it “imitates the world in all its complexity.” And it does it almost entirely in scene, without voiceover or flashback, without using those tools to consistently privilege one characters’ experience and motives over the others’. This is an omniscient perspective, without the moralizing or unitary reality for which that 19th century trope has been criticized and rejected. So maybe this is a novel. Maybe there are two novels: the form and the idea. But strangely, I think the more we understand what the idea is, the more we can interrogate its attachment to the form. I would by no means cheer the death of the book novel, any more than I would the death of the paper book; but if pushing at the edges of media and definitions creates work like The Wire, what reader could decry that pushing?

To fulfill the requirements of my Master of Fine Arts in Writing, I have to give a jolly ol’ reading. The details:

When: Sunday, June 22, 4:15pm-4:45pm
Where: Taylor Auditorium (Room 216), Marsh Hall, Pacific University Campus
What: Graduate readings (15 minutes each) by me and fellow fiction student Lesley Weiss

About my reading: I’ll be reading a fabulist piece from my thesis, Sea Selves.

Logistics: Marsh Hall looks like this and is located in the middle of campus. That means you’ll have at least a short walk from any parking spot. Here are campus maps and directions.

In keeping with long tradition...

Sunday June 08, 2008 @ 11:59 AM (UTC)

I missed Faerye Net’s birthday. Five years of bloggery! I’ve been bloggin’ for so long I have bloggin’ calluses! Get off my lawn!

Someone called into KQED yesterday morning and took one of the political analysts to task for her use of ‘Mrs.’ to describe Senator Clinton rather than ‘Senator’. The analyst said she makes a point of using either rather than the overfamiliar “Hillary”. Okay, the caller has a little point there…but then she went on to say that because of the sexism exhibited by the Obama campaign, she would be voting for McCain now that Clinton is out.

Oh dear. I mean, I think I have a pretty high awareness of sexist language, and I have heard very little from the Obama campaign. The Obama “camp”? Which includes internet trolls, sign wavers, and all sorts of hangers-on? Sure. But Obama and his campaign? The only thing I ever heard was an allegation that he shouldn’t have used the word ‘periodic’ in a sentence about Clinton’s aggressive foreign policy, and I found it pretty thin. Whereas the Clinton campaign and their “hard-working” and anti-affirmative action dogwhistles disgusted me. I have been appalled by the misogyny of anchors, of dumb idjits on the internet, of people at rallies. But I haven’t been appalled by Obama or his people.

But that’s a bit beside the point. This is politics, right? If this primary season had gone as expected, swimmingly in Clinton’s direction, I would have held my nose and voted for her. Because McCain is a flip-flopping hotheaded sellout. Because he hugged Bush after the vicious 2000 primary and he hasn’t stopped holding him since…and because I don’t want someone who has flopped to the anti-choice side picking the Supreme Court. How pro-woman are you, Forum caller? So pro-woman you’ll vote in a guy who calls his wife the c-word just to show your disgust with the misogyny of a few Obama voters on the internet?


Tuesday June 03, 2008 @ 12:13 PM (UTC)

It’s been said to me (to my shame, I forget where or by whom) that great works of art — say, Hokusai’s wave painting, or “Starry Night” — have been diminished by their popularity. They are pictured over and over, often in trivial form: tote bag, mousepad, dorm room posters. Through this repetition and even the contemptible familiarity of adorning mugs, placemats and magnets, they lose their original impact. They become symbols rather than art objects: in some cases, their meaning is as simple as “Mona Lisa = culture.”

I think the same thing can occur with literature. There is a passage I love in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets which is quoted often. I’ve almost not written this blog post because I don’t want to be part of the over-repetition problem. But let’s just say that the quote is about returning home and recognition. I’m sure you’ve heard it. It’s printed on posters of pretty landscapes, and on artsy greeting cards. It has probably appeared on quote-of-the-day calendars. If you need any more clues, it is usually quoted from “We shall not cease from exploration”.

This quote begin the first stanza of “Little Gidding” V, on the very last page of the long, beautiful, interwoven Quartets. Reading these poems is rigorous but rewarding intellectual and, for me, emotional work, and that quote is and was an arrival, a culmination. It isn’t merely ‘true’ or ‘inspiring’, in context it is a revelation, itself the recognition and the return it describes. I think I may have cried when I reached it in my first perusal.

But even then, enjoying the passage in context and as it was meant, I knew it was coming. The blow of realization was softened by the recognition of that quote, the memories of all the glurgy confections in which I’ve seen those words quoted. A host of associations alien to the poetry at hand crowded in, and while the thought of that reading, that moment, still gives me a shiver, it also carries a hint of annoyance at the companies and people that overused that quote and tarnished a little of its brilliance. It’s like playing two bars of the Moonlight Sonata in a music box. It’s bite-sizing and mass-marketing our cultural treasures. It’s tawdry and sad.


Monday June 02, 2008 @ 11:01 AM (UTC)

The silver cat coils around my calf, then pauses. She sniffs along my knee, intent, as if she can smell the cat I dreamt last night.

No, really.

Friday May 30, 2008 @ 10:41 PM (UTC)

When people meet me (or, recently read my name) in a writing context, they occasionally ask if or assume that it’s a nom de plume. However, in other contexts people tend to take my word on it that that’s my name. The other day, though, someone was copying my name from a written source in front of him and decided to invert my first and middle names. (He called me by my middle name for the rest of our interaction, it wasn’t just a typo.) I like to imagine his thought process went something like “There’s no way her parents put her through elementary school with that1. It must be a family middle name or something.”

1 I love my name. And yeah, it got some teasing on the playground, but have you met me? I probably would have been teased even if I had been the 3rd Kelly in my grade.

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