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Since I seem to be making a habit of attending literary readings, I thought I’d better come up with a snappy (or at least cheesy) title for posts about them.

Some time ago, I happened to pick up a free bookmark covered with free reading dates at the Stegner Fellowship office on Stanford campus. Now, since I don’t have Powell’s down here to provide me with readings, and since Palo Alto is only a jillion miles away – which passes for convenient in my life at present – I popped all those babies right onto my calendar. The first so popped was that of Lorrie Moore.

Duly, I chose respectable yet not-overwarm clothing and printed off three views of the Stanford campus map along with a set of directions carefully sanity-checked against same. I set off forty minutes earlier than the map site recommended, and felt sure that such a cushion of time would allow me to navigate the Stanford Maze.

The Stanford Maze is an effect of Stanford’s size and wealth coupled with certain human factors. Not only is the campus huge and laid out with organic whimsy, as the growing wealth of the institution and the ambitions of its managers allowed, but it apparently maintains for itself the illusion of intimacy. I infer this from the fact that all the winding byways of the campus intersect at four-way stops. If you have never attempted to use an all-way stop in California, I do not recommend it—even if the ways stopping only contain one lane each, which is not always the case at Stanford. This utter inability to remember who has right-of-way is one human factor; another is confident undergrads striding about without looking at cars, often at night in dark clothing (in the day they wear bright cheerful colors, but a few like to wear dark colors at night just to keep the drivers on their toes.) Throw in many cyclists and the occasional activist against turn-signal use, and you still have only the slightest understanding of the Stanford Maze.

The final effable ingredient is construction. Also an effect of the Stanford Wealth, this construction is everywhere and detour signs are, to put it generously, few. Thus it was that I squandered 25 of my 40 extra minutes driving back and forth in front of a construction fence which concealed not only the road I needed, but its curbcut, sign and existence. Finally realizing this, I moved on to trying to park and become a dangerous, dark-clothed pedestrian, which took the other 15 minutes, as I couldn’t find a single non-permit-requiring parking spot. At last I trusted to luck and parked in whatever an “EA permit” spot might be.

At this point I was some distance away from the auditorium, with only three minutes to find it lest I become an embarrassed latecomer mouthing ‘sorry’ as I scoot my butt past those in more convenient seats (which would have been extra-mortifying when I found out that Tobias Wolff was doing the introduction. Tobias “Bullet in the Brain” freakin’ Wolff.) Luckily, by dint of fast walking and ignoring the cryptic names of buildings on my map in favor of their cross-sectional shape, I managed to squeak in one minute before anyone said anything, if, in all probability, one minute after nominal showtime. I found myself in one of the larger readings I’ve ever attended, dreadfully thirsty, surrounded by people I didn’t know and arriving just in the nick of time. This is no way to acquire the secure air of the lone sophisticate, but luckily one of the four people I know at Stanford was there, so I did not have to sit alone and look clever.

Lorrie Moore read the first chapter of a novel she has almost completed (I have no idea if it’s the one she was working on in this Ploughshares interview, but it didn’t seem to be about hate.) It proved to have a self-deprecating narrator with a distinctive voice (Moore excels at voice) and a fund of odd observations about the world. She had us laughing out loud a great deal. As The Believer’s article on her says, “Moore’s hallmark has become the inextricability of humor and pathos, which she explores with rare understanding.” I look forward to reading the rest of the novel. She has an idiosyncratic reading style; she places emphasis and pauses in very different places than I would expect. I wonder if this means that she ‘hears’ those emphases and pauses when she’s writing, as well? I think it’s easy to assume that the way you yourself hear sentences is ‘normal’, but in all probability everyone is a little different. The individual ear is probably informed by the literary sponge effect.

At any rate, I enjoyed the reading, and utilized my patented Lurking Skills to haunt the author afterwards so I could get my copy of Like Life signed. I was only the second or so person to approach her in this vein, and she didn’t have a pen. Luckily, I have a messenger bag instead of a purse, so I whipped it open, noted with amazement that I had TWO of my preferred rollerballs as well as my fountain pen, and handed her one of the rollerballs. (Not only is the fountain pen all cherished and stuff, but it was loaded with aqua ink AND I have handed it to two faculty authors in my program only to discover they are left-handed and fountain pens are a hindrance more than a help.) Anyway, she foolishly said this was the type of pen she liked herself, whereupon, flushed with the competence of having 2 of them on me, I offered to abandon it to her. There was, after all, a line forming, books in hand. There is a certain wordy bashfulness common in writers, and in the depths of same we clashed, courtesy upon courtesy, until I told her my name and that she could owe me a pen and dashed away.

It’s not much of a distinction, being owed a pen by a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, but that, and no ticket on your windshield, will get you home happy and warm. That ain’t bad for any adventure.

Greeting Cards

Friday February 08, 2008 @ 09:07 AM (UTC)

I’m hardly the first to note the many failures of the greeting card market. If I were, we wouldn’t have someecards to amuse us. However, I think it’s worth noting my frustrations.

I am a person who writes a fair number of letters. Fewer than was the case when I rode the bus to work, or was regularly 5-10 minutes early to classes. However, I still write a few. To me, the physical artefact of a letter still means something. So I like noting events with cards. However, I like, you know, writing in them. Which means, of course, that my first problem with cards is not uncommon:
1. Dear cardmakers, shut the heck up (and cool it with the lace.) Since the mid-90s or so, the market has opened up such that cards which are simple in wording (“Happy Birthday!” “Congrats!”) do exist, and cards with more attractive aesthetics than “a doily on every square inch” also exist. However, they don’t prevail, and they’re not the default. If you’re browsing a small collection, or in a hurry, good luck1.

2. Check your social assumptions if you want to make money. Now, I’ve heard rumors that Hallmark has started making same-sex marriage congrats cards, but I haven’t seen them. And the assumptions go deeper than that. To put it coarsely, 80% of the marriage cards in the market cause unbearable cognitive dissonance in the mind of a divorced prospective purchaser. Even those who do heed #1 and keep themselves to a sentence tend to drip with Patriarchal and romance-cultic assumptions I find toxic. And let’s not even get into gendered birthday cards. You don’t have to make actively pinko feminist cards to please me. You just need to have options. They’ll sell.

Related to both previous points, 3. Stock a greater variety of card messages. I was recently at a gift shop, trying to pick up a Congrats card for a friend who won an amazingly huge poetry prize Of Awesomeness. 65% Birthday cards (of which 50% specify the relationship on the cover, for Extra Glurge and Extra Not Actually Requiring Effort), 10% Wedding, 10% Wedding Anniversary, 10% Baby, 3% Sympathy (all ugly as sin, and glurgey), and 2% Get Well Soon. I could have used a birthday card for a specific, non-pooky friend (that, I found.) I WANTED a congrats card. I could have used sympathy and get-well cards to replenish my supplies at home. But I bought none, because they had such a paucity that overwordiness and aesthetic horror were almost a given. Look, I know birthdays are the most common card occasion. But would it kill you to have one fewer rack of them? Maybe knock out the fourth ‘grandson’ title, and put a freakin’ congrats card?

The reason I think this relates to #2 is simple: demographics. A lot of my friends are writers. Most of those, and a huge segment of those remaining, are grad students. They are in a part of their life where they’re accomplishing great things. Many of them already have families, or aren’t going to have families for a while—baby cards need not apply. Many of them are already married, or aren’t getting married until they’re NEVER. Things I want to send cards about include graduating from grad school, getting nursing licenses, winning poetry prizes, having books published. Yeah, I can just write a letter, but having my friend open the envelope and see a big pretty “Congratulations!” rendered far more artistically than I can manage is fun. I’m sure the card industry, like every damn industry based on paper and post, is worried about the future. Well, I’m the future. I don’t look like June Cleaver and I don’t want to send the cards she did. Figure it out.

1 One great brand seems to be Recycled Paper Greetings which sadly has no working “where to get ‘em” software on their website. They offer, however, artists like Masha D’yans, who watercolors vibrant, whimsical cards that don’t have a lot of palaver. And whose site links to two online shops that carry her line. If only she had more congrats cards, this whole rant would disappear in a puff of logic.

The Grey City XV

Sunday January 27, 2008 @ 12:01 AM (UTC)

The Grey City I
The Grey City II
The Grey City III
The Grey City IV
The Grey City V
The Grey City VI
The Grey City VII
The Grey City VIII
The Grey City IX
The Grey City X
The Grey City XI
The Grey City XII
The Grey City XIII
The Grey City XIV

The sisters stood straight, too tired or proud to recognize their danger.

“What’s this, then, Inspector Blackburn?” said a mousy young man with no decoration on his black uniform save the row of effulgent buttons.

The senior Runner flicked his stare from the waifs to the young man. “Were I not here, Jeffers, how would you determine what ‘this’ is ‘then’?”

Jeffers might have blanched, had the half-light allowed him any further shades of pallor.

The young man’s eyes rolled back in a shudder of pale eyelashes. It lasted only a moment before his piscine gaze was back on the girls.

“Carrie and Erin Owens. To be taken in if not properly housed by this evening.” The inspector nodded, and Jeffers inflated a finger’s breadth. “They aren’t much in the brawn department, are they?”

“No, and Country stock besides.” The inspector made a hollow clapping behind his back with his cupped hands. “What are the current statistics on Country workhouse assets, Mr. Jeffers?”

The eyes flickered again. “61% mortality within a year, sir, and poor work-to-investment.”

The Inspector nodded slowly and reached for Eirian’s shoulder. “Take a report. Carrie and Erin Owens, known vagrants, found dead of exposure at —”

“1:07 in the morning, sir.”

“Thank you.”

Carys stared up at the snake-dark eyes of the Inspector, and confusion began to kindle to anger. She grabbed the pristine wool sleeve in her dirty paws and pushed the man’s hand away from Eirian. “We aren’t what you said, and we aren’t dead! And don’t you ever touch my sister!” She found in the echoes that she was screaming. She, little Carys, the ladylike, the soft, screamed strong and shrill in the foreign night and liked the sound. She pushed Eirian behind her and faced the Runners.

The Inspector’s arm swung back, but not towards Eirian. The clean, white hand coiled around Carys’s throat.

“Bodies to be collected at earliest convenience and conveyed to Central.”

“No!” shrieked the littler sister, scratching and pulling.

Carys was being lifted off the ground now, light as a doll in the Inspector’s grip. “Eirian —” she rasped. “Get away.”

“NO!” the little girl buffeted the Inspector’s shins with her ragged, skirt-muffled boots.

“Jeffers?” the Inspector said, and the smaller man moved around to dart at Eirian.

Carys had both her hands on her captor’s wrist, but her feet dangled wildly. “Mother said to mind me, Eirian! RUN!”

Eirian made a strangled sound of protest as she ducked Jeffers’s hands, but began to run. She bowled against the young Runner’s legs with such force that he fell over, and as he floundered she paused for a moment, to see how Carys would follow.

The Inspector, never glancing at the escaping quarry, brought up his second hand and made a quick, practiced movement. There was a cracking sound, like ice popping on a winter stream, and Carys was dead.

The Grey City XVI

I missed Blog for Choice Day this year

Thursday January 24, 2008 @ 10:50 PM (UTC)

In my post-Residency haze, I have overlooked Blog for Choice day, which I did observe last year. I won’t try to emend that now, but I will observe, as I did last year, that the anti-abortion-rights crowd in America is extreme, and would garner even less support if the woman and man in the street realized the extent of their views.

Case in point: Mike Huckabee supports banning hormonal contraception (that includes, of course, not only the Pill, but the Patch, the Shot, the Ring, et c.)

I’ve tried writing one or two more sentences after that, and I’m afraid it can only turn into pages and pages. Look: the Culture War is not a shooting war. I know and love people who disagree with me on abortion rights. I don’t think those people want to take away the tools that allow women (and men) to start a family when they want to, when they’re ready; that stabilize hormonal imbalances and have many other health benefits, some of which are only now becoming clear. Get this information out there, including, however delicate the topic might be, to your anti-abortion-rights family and friends. This guy is an extremist. Don’t vote for him.

It is Moby-Dick. Since I’ve marked Don Quixote as “to-read”, I also have one in common with Thomas Jefferson.

This is hilarious and beautiful.

Back on the beach

Sunday January 13, 2008 @ 11:52 PM (UTC)

What is the difference between very little and nothing? Approximately the difference between my posting habits in the last few months and my posting habits for the last week and change. I’m back in my grad school grind (tho’ not a Gradgrindian school). It’s my final semester…only one more of these mad, lovely swirls of theory and work, friendship and inspiration awaits me.

So I write from a hotel room looking out on the Pacific, whose surf is still white even when the water stares black at the starlit sky. Oregon is in my bones as well as in my heart. It’s good to be home.

Do you have a child, grandchild, niece or nephew that you care about? You want to do the right thing by them, don’t you? That’s why you need to talk to them before it’s too late. Talk to them about dinosaurs before they learn about them on the street.

Don’t let your child grow up thinking Tyrannosaurus has three claws. Don’t let something like this happen in your home:

Not a pretty picture

New word: the excess!

Monday December 24, 2007 @ 12:38 AM (UTC)

Trust Angela Carter to use a long, interesting word, opulent in its syllables and sounds, which I had never heard:

deliquescent: “1: tending to melt or dissolve; especially : tending to undergo gradual dissolution and liquefaction by the attraction and absorption of moisture from the air
“2: having repeated division into branches” – Merriam-Webster

Against "Friendship"

Friday December 14, 2007 @ 04:40 PM (UTC)

I blame Myspace.

Probably there are 200 different rants on different topics that begin that way, but this one is mine. And it’s about contacts, the way links are forged between nodes (people) in social networks.

The first social networking site, in any way, that I used was Flickr. Flickr allows you to designate people as ‘contacts’ and watch their photos. This is explicitly one-way, and you don’t have to reciprocate or approve—nor do people who have ‘contacted’ you appear on your profile as part of your Flickr personality. While ‘contacts’ may be slightly overstating the degree of acquaintance, it is fairly serviceable. You can further designate contacts as “Friends” and/or “Family”, thus allowing them to see photos at different privacy levels. While some might benefit from a customizable privacy-level scheme, this keeps the system agile and is quite practical.

Jyte, the next social network I entered, also uses the ‘contact’ terminology, and allows you to tag your contacts to describe the relationship, which is appeallingly open-ended and a good way of differentiating people whose Jyte claims and comments you like and people with whom you exchange Festivus gifts.

So far, so good. But someone on Jyte got me into these book cataloging websites, namely goodreads. From there, I also got into LibraryThing, which sadly seems to be superior but is not getting the new membership gestalt goodreads is. LibraryThing started out with ‘watchlists’, public and private—people whose libraries you wanted to ogle. They slowly accepted the inevitable and added ‘Friends’, but kept the watchlists as well, and thus are immune to my rant.

It’s goodreads that gets to me. Every few weeks I get ‘friend requests’ from complete strangers. Sometimes they are strangers who do not seem, from their profiles, to read English, and thus can have only a desultory interest in most of my reading material. These strangers usually have upwards of 200 ‘friends’. Are they trying to ‘friend’ everyone on the site? Are they, as I peruse the existing friends of some of these gregarious hounds, trying to friend every visibly young female member of the site? Or are there some other commonalities, some legitimate reason they want the input of all these strangers on reading materials—we all put 5 stars for Pride and Prejudice, or admitted an interest in science fiction, or something? I don’t know, but these people from the planet Gregarion are not my ‘friends’. The poor word is abused enough by being beaten into the shape of a verb, and now we are trying to stretch it over the concept “a person on another continent I have collected”?

It’s a weird and slightly creepy feeling, trying to guess from someone’s profile whether they are a friend of a friend, someone I’ve met under an online moniker, or who shares my interest, or whether they’re trying to jam me in the ether jar in order to pin me on their profile. It’s not only uncomfortable, it’s a waste of my time. That’s time I could be spending hovering over the ‘send friend request’ button on Facebook, wondering if I can really, after years of separation, despite how I cherished the person, still ask them to call me by this word I still value, “Friend”.

Debate indigestion

Wednesday December 05, 2007 @ 12:01 PM (UTC)

I caught the tail-end of the Iowa Public Radio/NPR Democratic debate yesterday on (you guessed it) the radio. The final question was from an Iowan Democrat

What do you think the toughest choice you have left to make is? Is it gay marriage, immigration, the war in Iraq? What haven’t you made up your mind on yet? And why haven’t you?

Yawn, right? General question.

No. In fact, it’s a great question, because it actually processes as ‘how much of a sleaze are you’—a true sleaze cannot bear to answer it honestly. Clinton said there were lots of things, but turned it into “And you know, I have some very clear ideas about it, but I’m not going to sit here and say that I have the answers.” swoon She’s humble, yet visionary! (That was sarcasm, by the by.)

Mike Gravel went somewhere weird with it: “I don’t have the answer – I don’t have the answer to be able to persuade the American people that they are the solution, not their leaders. I wish I had the answer to convince them of that.” I don’t know enough about him to know if that’s just something he likes to bring every topic back to, or genuine, or what. It’s a little weird, but possibly refreshing, in an election to select, you know, leaders.

Obama: “The issue of climate change.” He expanded, but I think we can all agree that’s a pretty daunting problem.

Dodd said convincing the country of the importance of education. Gold star for Dodd. Ra ra education!

Biden had to lead with self-aggrandizement and finish with big hard words. “I know exactly what I’d do in those foreign policy issues. But quite frankly, I think that the toughest choice for me, the thing I’m most unsure about, is how you rationalize competition and trade policy. I think that’s the single most difficult challenge that I will have as president.” I’m sure the American people have a clear idea of what you’re worried about now. Rationalize? So you know what you’d do, but you don’t know how to make it make sense? Or you just like being vague?

Edwards was the supersleaze on this one. He outsleazed Clinton:

INSKEEP: Senator Edwards?

SEN. EDWARDS: Who I would choose as my vice president and whether – (laughter) – whether to consider any of these people sitting at the table with me.

INSKEEP: Anybody want to put in a resume or anything at this time? No one seems to be very eager to grab that job at this time.

SEN. EDWARDS: They will, they will.

INSKEEP: But is there seriously – is there seriously something that you’re wrestling with?

SEN. EDWARDS: I think we have an enormous struggle to try to restore the power in the country and the democracy back to the American people and take it away from big corporate interests, et cetera, who’ve taken over the democracy.

INSKEEP: And you’re not sure -

SEN. EDWARDS: I think there are many ways to do that, and I think the starting place is to galvanize America to do it. But I think it is central to what we need to do for America.

A citizen asked you a question, asshat. Pretend you care.

But wait! There’s competition! A man who takes the question “what aren’t you sure about” as a prompt to talk about how completely awesome and hardcore he is:

INSKEEP: Congressman Kucinich.

REP. KUCINICH: I wrestle with the question as to whether or not the president and the vice president should be held liable for crimes, for taking us into a war based on lies.

I mean, I’m ready to be president. I’ve been right all along on Iraq, on Iran, on not-for-profit health care and giving our children a chance for an education from age 3 all the way through to a degree -

INSKEEP: Oh, come on. You know what you want to do on that. You want to impeach people -

REP. KUCINICH: I know. Listen, I’m ready to be president. I am ready to be president. And the standards – I’m the only one here who has said that both President Bush and Vice President Cheney ought to be impeached for lying to the American people, not only to take us into war against Iraq, but now this new development with the N- with the National Intelligence Estimate.

Tell us what our standards should be for the Oval Office. Tell us what standards – I’m asking my colleagues here – that you would expect to be obtained by anybody who would be president. Can you lie about a war? Is that OK?

Thanks, Democratic candidates. Because of you, I reached work already full of misanthropy and seething disgust. Just the way to start a day of customer service.

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