Posts tagged with "observation" - Faerye Net 2011-05-11T21:35:50+00:00 Felicity Shoulders Observation of the day 2011-05-11T21:35:50+00:00 2011-05-11T21:35:50+00:00 <p><a href="">I like to observe things.</a></p> <p>Today&#8217;s catch: A twenty-something white man in Buddy Holly glasses with a hot pink skateboard strapped to his backpack. He was practicing the moonwalk at a bus stop in the rain.</p> Contrariwise 2010-12-06T20:43:38+00:00 2010-12-06T20:45:04+00:00 <p>Once, when I had a day job that often made me froth and rage with incandescent despair, I noticed that the more I raged, the more cheerfully I answered the phone. This went unnoticed by any save my sister, who once called and heard me sing out in saccharine tones, &#8220;Good afternoon, Day Job Incorporated! How may I <em>help</em> you?&#8221; and said in stricken tones, &#8220;Dear <span class="caps">GOD</span>, what is <span class="caps">WRONG</span>?&#8221;</p> <p>In a similar vein, today I toiled my way to the grocery store through endless streams of totally unreasonable traffic. I avoided collisions with people driving irrationally and with 2&quot; dowels sticking yards out of pickup trucks into the parking lot, and found that my heart was full of aggravation with my fellow man. In fact, to quote our friend Ishmael (with the exception that it was a crisp chill December within and without my soul), I did feel that it required &#8220;a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people&#8217;s hats off&#8230;&#8221; If not their heads. I avoided making eye contact, for fear of accidentally killing people with mind-daggers, and felt that if I were to inadvertently open my mouth, a sheet of baleful green fire might emerge, or at least that noise the monster made in <em><span class="caps">LOST</span></em>.</p> <p>In this condition I gathered my vegetables and slinked to the register with my raw poultry. The cashier, a rosy-cheeked lad I had never before seen, asked me for my co-op membership card, and I, coiled in around my core of misanthropy and wrath&#8230;said, &#8220;Oh yes, here it is,&#8221; in a voice precisely one millimeter tall.</p> <p>I&#8217;m amazed he could even hear me. Note to self for future writing reference: humans can be <em>awfully</em> contrarian.</p> "Flabbergasted by the commonplace" 2010-11-13T08:07:13+00:00 2010-11-13T08:17:33+00:00 <p>I&#8217;ve blogged a bit of late about <a href="" target="links">observation</a>, and harvesting potentially telling details from the world about you. A longer while ago, I blogged about <a href="" target="links">&#8220;try[ing] to make the world strange again, so I can dive into it anew.&#8221;</a></p> <p>I thought <a href="">this blog post</a> was sharply relevant to all that. It&#8217;s by Stephen Kuusisto, a writer and professor attached to <a href="" target="links">the <span class="caps">MFA</span> program</a> I attended (though I&#8217;ve never worked with him, myself.) It&#8217;s about how he sees the &#8220;dreadful color&#8221; of school buses.</p> <p>How you see something is shaped by everything that came before it: who you are, the sum of your past experiences, the associations your brain forms, your mood at the moment, what you think is important or unimportant. In Steve Kuusisto&#8217;s case, it&#8217;s affected by his history with vision as well as with school buses: &#8220;I&#8217;ve been blind for for most of my life, and now that I can see a little I&#8217;m largely flabbergasted by the commonplace,&#8221; he says.</p> <p>I love this blog post because it&#8217;s so unexpected &#8211; I honestly see the color of school buses in an entirely different way that probably has to do with the color of standard #2 pencils, and not so much with failure &#8211; and also for what that unexpectedness gives me, the reader. No two people see a telling detail the same way, and the shock of seeing the school bus from someone else&#8217;s context is one of the lovely, rich displacements of reading.</p> <p>But also I love that phrase he uses: &#8220;I&#8217;m largely flabbergasted by the commonplace.&#8221; As writers, I think that would be a good state to cultivate. Our habitual, ordinary world can lull us, and stop us perceiving it or piercing it. I want to be shocked anew by the strangeness of things that have surrounded me for decades. I want to be flabbergasted by the commonplace, don&#8217;t you?</p> I've been Calvin's-Dadded! 2010-07-20T11:51:11+00:00 2010-07-20T11:52:17+00:00 <p>The other morning, I started to type out a tweet. It would eventually be <a href="" target="links">this tweet</a>, declaring my love for my iPhone 4, no matter its overhyped failings. But when I typed it, I typed &#8220;I&#8217;m glad Apple isn&#8217;t responding to this <strong>foofraff</strong> with a recall&#8230;&#8221; Then I stared at the word &#8216;foofraff&#8217;, which even as I type it now I hear in my father&#8217;s voice, in tones of exasperation. To me, it means &#8220;mess&#8221;. Used in a phrase: &#8220;all this foofraff!&#8221; But I wasn&#8217;t really sure, so I searched. No hits on <a href="" target="links">Yahoo! Search</a> for foofraff. None. On Google, one&#8230;in Polish. It seems not to mean anything in Polish either.</p> <p>I called my dad. &#8220;Dad, I have a very unimportant question for you.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Yes?&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;What does &#8216;foofraff&#8217; mean?&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Nothing, as far as I know. It&#8217;s one of those coined words with no particular meaning.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;And who coined this word?&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Oh, I don&#8217;t know.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;It wasn&#8217;t by any chance&#8230;<em>you</em>?&#8221;</p> <p>My father claims innocence, but how do you explain this nonsense word only he, I, and some person in Poland use? It isn&#8217;t the only one. The internet uses &#8220;<strong>smoorg</strong>&#8221; but I&#8217;m not sure it uses it in our familial sense of &#8220;mix together&#8221; (Dad says this is &#8220;<strong>smoog</strong>&#8221; and comes from the divine <em><a href="" target="links">Pogo</a></em>). I constantly have to define &#8220;<strong>feh</strong>&#8221; for <a href="" target="links">Ryan</a> (it&#8217;s short for &#8220;feculence&#8221;, obviously!) My dad makes up nicknames for everything from restaurants to electronics stores, and I&#8217;ve no doubt he&#8217;s gotten creative with slang and nonsense, too.</p> <p>I also discovered during my brief flirtation with <a href="" target="links">NaNoWriMo</a> five years ago that a whole phylum of my father&#8217;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 <a href=""><em>Twists, Slug and Roscoes</em></a>, which is where I found favored parental word <strong>glom</strong> and rarer birds like <strong>spondulix</strong>, as well as more common idioms like <strong>cheese it, dingus, hinky</strong>, and <strong>noodle</strong> (in the sense of &#8220;use your&#8221;). I use these words quite freely, and never realized I might sound like a &#8220;wise dame&#8221;.</p> <p>Now sure, you may think that my dad just enjoyed a few issues of <em><a href="" target="links">Ellery Queen&#8217;s</a></em> in his formative years alongside his <a href="" target="links"><em>Amazing Stories</em></a>. 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&#8217;s the whole point: <em>I won&#8217;t know how weird the words are until I use them in public.</em></p> <p>Unlike <a href="" target="links">Calvin&#8217;s Dad</a>, 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!</p> List slippers 2010-07-10T14:54:01+00:00 2010-07-10T14:56:03+00:00 <blockquote>It&#8217;s always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is much less <em>immediately</em> concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks. <strong>-Flannery O&#8217;Connor</strong>, <em><a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780374508043'>Mystery and Manners</a></em></blockquote> <p>In my <a href="" target="links">last blog post</a>, I meant to include this quote. (In fact, at one point I intended to call the post &#8220;Collecting List Slippers&#8221; in its honor.)</p> <p>In context, O&#8217;Connor refers to <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780140449129'><em>Madame Bovary</em></a>:<br /> <blockquote>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&#8217;s clerk, passing along the highroad bare-headed and in list slippers, stopped to listen, his sheet of paper in his hand. </blockquote></p> <p>In yet further explanation, I proffer this link about the nature of <a href="" target="links">list slippers</a>, 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.)</p> <p>Okay, so obviously this quote needs a lot of unpacking, and perhaps it&#8217;s just as well that I left it out of the other post. But it also deserves more than the slight mention I&#8217;ve <a href="" target="links">already given</a> it &#8212; it&#8217;s a massively important point about writing made succinctly and pungently. I think of these list slippers every other day or so.</p> <p>As everyone&#8217;s friend John Gardner writes in his <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780679734031'><em>Art of Fiction</em></a>, &#8220;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.&#8221; 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.</p> <p>Everything matters. How could I not love that?</p> Observations 2010-07-06T12:46:57+00:00 2010-07-10T15:03:37+00:00 <p>One of the first things I learned in writing school was to watch more closely. My first advisor in graduate school (and author of the upcoming <a href='' target="powells" title='' rel='powells'><em><span class="caps">MFA</span> in a Box</em></a>), <a href="" target="links">John Rember</a>, pointed out to me that being a writer is not just writing: it&#8217;s how you see the world.</p> <p>Before I went to grad school, I already loved little idiosyncratic details. I loved noticing how one thing was so unexpectedly like another, and deploying that likeness in prose to give someone a jolt of recognition. I loved stealing a gesture from a passerby and teasing it out into a character. But I more or less relied on those details to come to me. I wrote things down when I noticed them, but I didn&#8217;t go out into the world, eyes open, ears pricked and (figurative) antennae agape in order to gather them. Now I do.</p> <p>A few things I have noticed recently:</p> <ul> <li>A lone strawberry sitting in the road on a rural highway, pointing up like a caltrop.</li> </ul> <ul> <li>A man in an workman&#8217;s orange vest sitting on a traffic control box he had scaled with the help of a nearby stepladder. He was holding a package and apparently doing nothing.</li> </ul> <ul> <li>Teenage girls in summer dresses stealing a series of appraising glances at disreputably attired young men getting out of a van next to a venue (and thus, presumably, in a <strong>band</strong>).</li> </ul> <ul> <li>A highly-polished Jaguar in a shade of gold so extreme as to resemble baby poop, with <a href="" target="links">scythed wheels</a>.</li> </ul> <ul> <li>A petite woman in silver shoes and a sequined tunic posing motionless for a long time while her photographer fiddled with his camera.</li> </ul> <ul> <li>A man in baggy khakis and a burgundy polo crossing Terwilliger to stare fixedly into the sloping forest. He looked exactly like Bill Gates.</li> </ul> <ul> <li>Lanky siblings, long and slender with their teenage growth, cramming themselves onto swings and seesaws at the park and trading insults and boasts. Their hair was a light fine blond, like toddlers&#8217;, but their brows were dark and straight.</li> </ul> <p>These are the observations that lent themselves to blogular explanation, not the weird sensory notes that will take some time to resolve and render into words. Not all of these are worth using. None of them immediately gives me a story seed (give me time.) But I accrete these images and moments all the time, and it&#8217;s hard to predict when one will blossom, or, set next to my current idea or problem, suddenly connect. Moreover, just collecting them gives me a sense of glee. It makes me feel a part of the world, its weirdness and whimsy and occasional joy.</p> <p>In Psych 101, we learned that you could strengthen your sense of smell by practicing. Our professor noted that many people didn&#8217;t want to increase their nasal sensitivity because they thought they would be inundated with bad smells, but this isn&#8217;t the case. She said that apparently the brain always registers bad smells, because they are potential threats: when you train up your nose, you smell more (and more complex) pleasant or neutral odors. I immediately started training my nose.</p> <p>I wonder if there&#8217;s a similar effect with the multi-sensory observations I make of the world. I noticed some time ago that I am generally happier, mellower and more at peace than I used to be, and I wonder if part of this is from the discipline of observation I&#8217;ve acquired. &#8220;The impulse to write comes from the impulse to love,&#8221; my final advisor, Jack Driscoll, says. Perhaps observing the world closely is a way of loving it.</p> <p><b>Update</b>: Related post <a href="">here</a>.</p> Dream Locations 2010-06-14T23:03:04+00:00 2010-06-14T23:10:31+00:00 <p>I recently visited the <a href="" target="links">Kennedy School McMenamin&#8217;s</a> for the first time, and upon driving into the parking lot, was a little disturbed. Despite being quite certain I&#8217;d never been there &#8212; and despite its being a glorious summer afternoon &#8212; I remembered being there in a dim twilight, issuing out of the double doors and milling in half-reluctant revelry with familiar strangers. In short, I&#8217;d dreamed about a place that looked quite like it.</p> <p>Usually my dreams take place in locales I <em>have</em> actually visited, but I find they often are set in the same places, over and over. There was a house of a casual schoolfriend that appeared often &#8212; this confused me until I realized it shared a layout with at least six other houses visited in my suburban childhood. I also have the odd dream set in the house where I grew up &#8212; we lived there 12 years, after all. One thing I notice about indoor dreams is the presence of stairways. The dream-images of my childhood house are of the basement stairs, or the kitchen nook between them and the upstairs flight. That friend&#8217;s house, the oft-repeated house with the familiar layout? A split-level. I&#8217;m usually coming in the front door.</p> <p>Almost every dream I&#8217;ve had set in my high school, too, during and after my stay, was set in the great hall or the two stairwells that bracketed it &#8212; going up to a mezzanine, down to a basement. Small surprise, then, that after over a month&#8217;s cumulative substitute-teaching in that remodeled school, I still occasionally head for a stairway that isn&#8217;t there.</p> <p>What locales recur in your dreams?</p> The Booker and other Prize Reading 2008-09-29T21:36:38+00:00 2008-09-29T21:55:26+00:00 <p>I was a little surprised the other day, perigrinating <a href="" target="links">Powell&#8217;s City of Books</a>, to run across an Award Winner section. Maybe they had this before, but it&#8217;s certainly noticeable now, and features free bookmarks with lists of winners of the Pulitzer for Fiction, the National Book Award, et cetera. Then, of course, there were shelves and shelves of the books. I took a quick look and realized that I&#8217;ve read very few <span class="caps">NBA</span> winners, very few Pulitzers. What I do read is Bookers.</p> <ul><li>1981 Salman Rushdie, <em>Midnight&#8217;s Children</em> (on my to-read list)</li> <li>1982 Thomas Keneally, <em>Schindler&#8217;s Ark</em> (aka <em>Schindler&#8217;s List</em>, <b>read</b>)</li> <li>1983 J. M. Coetzee <em>Life &amp; Times of Michael K</em></li> <li>1984 Anita Brookner <em>Hotel du Lac</em></li> <li>1985 Keri Hulme, <em>the bone people</em></li> <li>1986 Kingsley Amis, <em>The Old Devils</em></li> <li>1987 Penelope Lively, <em>Moon Tiger</em></li> <li>1988 Peter Carey, <em>Oscar and Lucinda</em> (<b>read</b>)</li> <li>1989 Kazuo Ishiguro, <em>The Remains of the Day</em> (<b>read</b>)</li> <li>1990 A. S. Byatt, <em>Possession: A Romance</em> (<b>read</b>)</li> <li>1991 Ben Okri, <em>The Famished Road</em></li> <li>1992 Michael Ondaatje, <em>The English Patient</em> (<b>read</b>)</li> <li>1992 Barry Unsworth, <em>Sacred Hunger</em></li> <li>1993 Roddy Doyle, <em>Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha</em></li> <li>1994 James Kelman, <em>How Late It Was, How Late</em></li> <li>1995 Pat Barker, <em>The Ghost Road</em></li> <li>1996 Graham Swift, <em>Last Orders</em></li> <li>1997 Arundhati Roy, <em>The God of Small Things</em> (<b>read</b>)</li> <li>1998 Ian McEwan, <em>Amsterdam</em></li> <li>1999 J. M. Coetzee, <em>Disgrace</em></li> <li>2000 Margaret Atwood, <em>The Blind Assassin</em> (<a href="" target="links"><b>read</b></a>)</li> <li>2001 Peter Carey, <em>True History of the Kelly Gang</em> (<b>read</b>)</li> <li>2002 Yann Martel, <em>Life of Pi</em> (on my to-read list)</li> <li>2003 <span class="caps">DBC</span> Pierre, <em>Vernon God Little</em></li> <li>2004 Alan Hollinghurst, <em>The Line of Beauty</em></li> <li>2005 John Banville, <em>The Sea</em></li> <li>2006 Kiran Desai, <em>The Inheritance of Loss</em></li> <li>2007 Anne Enright, <em>The Gathering</em></li></ul> <p>Now, obviously I haven&#8217;t read the majority of these, the Booker Winners in my lifetime. But that&#8217;s a lot more than I&#8217;ve read of the Pulitzer Winners or <span class="caps">NBA</span> Winners since 1981.</p> <p>But another thing I notice is that the ones I&#8217;ve read are from 2001 and earlier. Of the more recent novels, the only one that sounds familiar &#8212; even having looked at shelves of Booker Winners just over a week ago &#8211; is <em>The Gathering</em>, and I couldn&#8217;t tell you the first thing about it. It takes a long time for books to come to my attention. Because of this, I am always amazed at how up-to-the-minute some readers are. I&#8217;m still trying to catch up on all the books I didn&#8217;t have time to read during grad school, a few classics I feel a dunce for not having read, any number of modern sci-fi works because my sci-fi reading was guided by a member of a previous generation. How do people manage to have read most or all of the <a href="" target="links">Booker shortlist</a> in time to have strident opinions about it? (The Booker&#8217;s juried, so their opinions are just that.) Are they all librarians and booksellers, book critics and Lit professors, so that it&#8217;s part of their job to know what&#8217;s coming out and whether they should read it? My way of reading is more haphazard, more organic. I gather suggestions and sometimes act on them immediately, sometimes wait for more information or opinions. I don&#8217;t buy many hardbacks and I borrow things from the library, on the whole, for which I don&#8217;t have to wait on a list.</p> <p>I suppose the reason I&#8217;m faintly nervous about this topic is that I recently lurked on a forum discussion about <span class="caps">SFWA</span> members and the Nebulas. (<span class="caps">SFWA</span> is the <a href="" target="links">Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America</a>. Active members can recommend works in the various <a href="" target="links">categories</a> for the preliminary ballot and vote on the preliminary ballot, which determines the final ballot that goes to judges.) Basically, the gist was that <span class="caps">SFWA</span> members aren&#8217;t active enough in recommending stories, and sometimes vote based on notoriety if they haven&#8217;t read the works. I&#8217;d like to be a full <span class="caps">SFWA</span> member someday (I am becoming a <del>junior</del> Associate Member <em>as we speak</em>) and I worry. I want to be diligent and do my civic duty (as a citizen of the galaxy). Am I going to have to be up-to-the-minute? Buy hardbacks, wait on library lists? Shove my half-read classics and obscure nonfiction reading aside to tackle the latest and greatest? But, then, I suppose, if I get to be an Active Member, doing the diligence will be <em>part of my job</em> too. Maybe I worry too much, because I feel like that would make me more proud than put upon.</p> The masculonormativity of spam 2008-09-12T10:30:47+00:00 2008-09-12T10:32:27+00:00 <p>One observation I failed to make in my <a href="" target="links">general masculonormativity post</a> is this: spam is for men.</p> <p>This is precisely the kind of thing I would guess is hard to notice if you&#8217;re a man, but I estimate my spam (when I do see it) is almost 50% Viagra/Cialis offers, 20% (gender-neutral) offers of cut-rate software, 10% (gender-neutral) nonsense or Nigerian scams, and 20% (male-oriented) porn ads. That means 70% of spam assumes that I am a man. Some of that is likely capitalism at work: if men are more likely to click on spam, or if porn and ED drugs are the main ways to make money off spam, that may be what&#8217;s driving it. But it may also be an easy assumption for spammers in Russia or wherever to make &#8212; that men are the primary users of the Internet or the primary spenders of money.</p> <p>All I know is that last year when, briefly, I got spam advertising knockoffs of designer handbags and heels, I was almost pleased. Spam that assumed I was a woman! Amazing!</p> Maleness is the human default 2008-07-29T08:01:26+00:00 2008-07-29T08:02:13+00:00 <p>This may cover an idea very familiar to some readers, but I want to refer to it in an upcoming post, so I here we are.</p> <p>This is one of the unspoken assumptions of our civilization, and one on which a lot of sexism is founded. It&#8217;s so fundamental you might say we inhale it with our first breath, or at least learn it with language. I was brought up by strident anti-sexists, but I learned this principle anyway: men are &#8216;normal&#8217;. Women are &#8216;other&#8217;. I even, as a child, assigned a certain logic to it: Adam first. Eve out of Adam.</p> <p>So what&#8217;s my point here? My point is that there isn&#8217;t actually any logic to this societal assumption (in the absence of religious belief). Men and women are just two human possibilities, neither more natural or &#8216;regular&#8217; than the other. But it permeates our culture: I&#8217;ve heard of medical receptionists whose software is hardwired to always say &#8216;M&#8217; under patient gender unless they manually enter &#8216;F&#8217; (in ob-gyn&#8217;s offices, this is apparently the cause of much grousing). Men&#8217;s products are just &#8220;The Amazing Foo!&#8221; whereas women get &#8220;The Foo <em>for Her</em>&#8221;. Men play fooball, women play women&#8217;s fooball. T-shirt sizes are assumed to be men&#8217;s unless stated to be women&#8217;s. Babies are <a href="" target="links">assumed to be male</a> unless frilled and bowed. Most video games feature male protagonists, and protagonists (and characters in general) in <a href="" target="links">movies and TV</a> are overwhelmingly male.</p> <p>This is a hard slant for many men to notice, I assume because most of us would guess we&#8217;re biased to consider ourselves &#8216;normal&#8217;. Just as a white person might take a long time to pick up on the overwhelming white normalcy in advertising and media, it&#8217;s hard to notice as odd what seems natural from your viewpoint. But women, often subconsciously, adjust to the world which has been written, made and tailored for men. There&#8217;s a whole arm of literary theory about the way women identify specifically with male characters after they&#8217;ve been trained by years of literature and media to do so. I think Virginia Woolf&#8217;s portrait of this dual consciousness in <em>A Room of One&#8217;s Own</em> captures it beautifully:<br /> <blockquote>Again if one is a woman one is often surprised by a sudden splitting off of consciousness, say in walking down Whitehall [stately heart of London], when from being the natural inheritor of that civilisation, she becomes, on the contrary, outside of it, alien and critical.</p> </blockquote> <p>I am not an expert in literary theory, or in gender studies, but I think this simple idea about the world is an important one to consider&#8230;and, as I said, a necessary prelude to a future (geekier) blog post.</p>