On clarity, Matthew Zapruder’s “Why Poetry,” and reading Bruce Weigl.

On clarity, Matthew Zapruder’s “Why Poetry,” and reading Bruce Weigl.

Some people approach poems as though they are puzzles.  My high school English teachers implied that poems are full of symbols that we must decode.  Which simply isn’t true.

Billy_Collins_Poet_at_San_Diego_State_UniversityIn Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” he exhorts his students to enjoy the experience of reading a poem, of feeling each sound leave the mouth and spill outward into the world.  His students balk.  That’s not how they were taught to read poetry!  Instead, Collins writes,

 all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

 

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

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Matthew-Zapruder-Why-PoetryMatthew Zapruder began writing Why Poetry to explain the difference between the idea of symbolism taught in high school – a one-to-one mapping between words on the page and the author’s veiled intent, a parlor trick like the parallels between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey – and actual symbolism employed by regular ol’ human poets.  In Zapruder’s words:

If what we mean by “symbol” is a word or phrase that has some specific, hidden, secret meaning, then we don’t really find those very often in poetry.  The idea that we do is inimical to a true experience of reading it.

When language in poetry becomes resonant, and charged with meaning, it achieves a symbolic status.

Zapruder is saddened that readers think writers would intentionally hide the meaning of their words.  Let alone that writers might actually do it.

Clarity for me in poetry is a kind of generosity, a willingness to be together with the reader in the same place of uncertainty, striving for understanding.  To give the impression that something important is happening but that the mere reader cannot, without some kind of special, esoteric knowledge, have access to it strikes me as deeply ungenerous, even cruel.

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Our poetry classes in the jail have had high turnover recently.  New Leaf New Life previously ran a “recovery dorm” inside the jail.  The dorm was a miserable little space – an underground concrete room with a shower, a toilet, twelve bunks, and two tables for eating, no exterior windows, just a view of central booking and the elevator – but people chose to live in there, sometimes for years, to have a modicum of autonomy and access to volunteer programming.  Things like our poetry class, AA meetings, a weekly game night.

We were able to work with the same group of people for long stretches of time.  We could provide a full curriculum and work on revising our own writing.  Everyone who wrote for the recent Monster House Press publication was incarcerated in this dorm.

Since this program was canceled (replaced with court-mandated rehab), we’ve been teaching poetry classes only for general population, for people in one of the rowdier cell blocks.  One week, our class was totally derailed by a group of roughnecks extolling the gang control they’d imposed on the block.  Other weeks people come just to grab a pencil and a few sheets of paper, then promptly ask if the guards can come and take them back.  Or, when their block was on lockdown every day for weeks, pushy dudes who didn’t want to read or write would fill the sign-up sheet just for the chance to stretch their legs on the walk down the hallway to our classroom.

Some weeks class falls flat.

I don’t blame them for signing up.  I’ve never lived inside a jail, but it sounds like the pits.  I’d sign up for programs I didn’t care about, too, just to break up the monotony of days.

Still, some weeks we get lucky and have a room full of (unlucky) dudes who really want to read and write.

Since we’ve been seeing so many new people, we’ve been reading poetry by Bruce Weigl several times each year.  Weigl writes powerful narrative poems that deal with trauma and violence.  We begin with “The Impossible,” which opens:

Winter’s last rain and a light I don’t recognize

through the trees and I come back in my mind

to the man who made me suck his cock

when I was seven, in sunlight, between boxcars.

 

I thought I could leave him standing there

in the years, half smile on his lips …

This is a hard poem for guys in jail to read.  It’s a hard poem for anybody to read, but in our classes, particularly, whomever is reading it out loud first might stop at the third line.

AR-160539927The opening is perfect, though.  As with Proust’s mind flooding when he stumbles over a pair of uneven paving stones, or hears a long-forgotten tone, or smells tea and cake exactly like his aunt used to eat, Weigl’s memories swell unbidden when he glimpses light shining through tree leaves in a particular way.  Once, when I was seven, there was just this light … and … and …

He thought he could forget his trauma.  Thought he could “leave him standing there / in the years.”  He was wrong.

Many people who have survived abuse try to forget and move on.  But the memories can fester.  After class one week, a man lingered, asking a guard “Can I … can I talk for him a minute …” and, when the guard nodded, said to me, “Like, something happened to me … kinda like that poem we were talking about … do you … do you think there’s a way I could get some help with that?”

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spotlight.jpgIn Tom McCarthy’s film Spotlight, a character finally agrees to be interviewed about the priest who raped him.  He is asked how he coped.  He turns out an arm riddled with needle tracks.

Most men in jail suffered disproportionately before they were locked up.  Many began taking drugs in lieu of the psychiatric care they needed but couldn’t afford; now they are addicted.  And behind bars.  Beneath fluorescent lights for nineteen hours a day.  Somehow they are expected to heal there, inside the jail, with even fewer resources before.

“The world needs to know,” we tell them.  “Write about that.”

They balk.  “I can’t write about this shit.”  It cuts too deep, the pain’s too raw … and they feel ashamed.  Our society has a tendency to blame victims.  In an interview with Blast Furnace, Weigl says that his father “was shocked that it had happened because I didn’t tell him at that time.  He said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’  I said, ‘Because you would’ve beaten my ass for letting it happen,’ and he knows he would have, too.  That would’ve been his response, Why did you let someone do this to you?

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But Weigl wrote openly of his trauma, and his words help others come to terms with abuse.  It must feel nauseating to re-live certain experiences in order to write them down – but that act of generosity could save someone else.  And in “The Impossible,” Weigl teaches us how to write about the things that seem impossible to write about.  The poem ends,

Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.

On post-apocalyptic historical fiction (and Neanderthals).

On post-apocalyptic historical fiction (and Neanderthals).

At 9 p.m. on a chilly night in January 2016, I pulled on my winter coat, asked K once more whether she thought my plan was too foolish, then trundled out to the front yard to sleep in the grass.  I pulled my arms close and lay there for several hours, uncomfortable and shivering, but failed to fall asleep.  A few college students walked by; I don’t think they noticed me.  Cars passed, blitzing my eyes with headlights.

Around midnight, I gave up.  I stiffly rose, limped inside, sloughed off my coat and clothes, then crawled into a warm, soft bed in our dark, quiet, safe room.  I quickly fell asleep.

I’d learned, again, that I am very blessed to have a home.  Sleeping shelter-less in wintertime is awful.  And a whole lot of people have to do it.

But that’s not why I was outside.  I was writing a short story about one of the last Neanderthals and wanted to know more about what my protagonist’s nights might have been like.  She lived in Europe approximately 40,000 years ago, a time when Europe was much chillier than it is now.  She might not have felt so shivery at night – Neanderthals were perfectly capable of building campfires – but much of her life would’ve been marked by cold.

Fewer blinding headlights, though.

ice_age_fauna_of_northern_spain_-_mauricio_anton

And more megafauna, creatures like mammoths, bears, lions, and wolves.  More birds.  More trees, sometimes – the Neanderthal clung to a tenuous existence, both individually and as a species, because of climate instability.  During that era, Europe fluctuated between woodlands and plains as temperatures rose or plunged.

Then Homo sapiens migrated north and the Neanderthal went extinct.  Murdered, starved of resources, passively outbred… we’re not sure.  Even the least violent extinction would’ve felt heartbreaking to the final victims, though.
I began work on this story because I’d read Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake and kept thinking that he’d struck upon a fascinating genre: post-apocalyptic historical fiction.

Donald Trump Trump Alzheimers Warning DementiaOur civilization might fall.  So many countries have nuclear weapons; an erratic narcissist has access to our button.  A few degrees of warming and our food crops might die.  Many of those crops are grown as single species across wide swaths of land: a particularly virulent insect or virus might wipe them out instead.  Humans live so densely now, and travel so often: a virus might wipe us out, too.  Or a bacterium resistant to our squandered antibiotics.

These horrors are grimly fascinating to read and think about: I enjoyed Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jose Saramago’s Blindness.  When we fall, we might fall hard.

CaptureOther cultures have.  The Mayans, the Easter Islanders, the Roman empire, the pre-Norman Invasion English.

And, of course, the Neanderthals.  Their language, and religion, and entire species was swept into extinction.

But there has been a recent boom in our understanding of Neanderthals.  I assume you know about Moore’s law, the rapid rate of doubling in the number of transistors that can be added to a computer chip, which has resulted in a massive drop in the cost of processing power.  What you may not know about – you’d have no reason to unless you work in bioscience or diagnostic medicine – is that even Moore’s law is dwarfed by the astronomical rate of change in the number of DNA nucleobases that can be sequenced per dollar.  Experiments that would have been exorbitantly expensive a few years ago are now routine.

It astounds me that archaeologists can recover any Neanderthal DNA from their dig sites.  But they can.  From tiny scrapings, they can sequence genomes.  And so we’ve learned, for instance, that males probably stayed in their tribe as they aged but the female children would depart.  This gave me an incentive to write about a female protagonist – she would’ve been away from her family, searching for a new tribe – which is a fun twist on the post-apocalyptic genre.

sapiens_neanderthal_comparison

Post-apocalyptic fiction typically features male protagonists because female characters evoke the possibility of rebirth (one of the few exceptions I know is David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress; Markson toys with this idea by having his protagonist make repeated reference to menstruation), but in the case of Neanderthals I think a female hero is appropriate.  Neanderthals lost the world, but before departing interbred with Homo sapiens enough times that many modern humans still carry vestiges of Neanderthal genome in their DNA.

Comparisons between Neanderthal DNA sequenced from archaeological scrapings and the genomes of contemporary humans reveal that we occasionally interbred.  Many different species of humans mated from time to time in the ancient world; some contemporary Homo sapiens still carry genes from each.

nytmag
This was a great recent read.

People who carry a hypoxia transcription factor from the now-extinct Denisovans seem better suited for life at high altitudes.  People who carry a spritzing of Neanderthal genes seem especially susceptible to allergies and depression.  Perhaps Neanderthal DNA conferred some benefits, too.  Neanderthals seem to have been stronger, and had better eyesight, than Homo sapiens, but it’s not clear if genes for these traits remain.

The most speculative element of my story is the religion I gave to the Neanderthal protagonist.  We’ve found no compelling evidence of Neanderthal writing or art, but this isn’t terribly surprising.  After all, we’ve found very little artwork made by Homo sapiens during that time period, and they (we?) were some ten-fold more abundant.  So I’d say that it’s reasonable to suspect that Neanderthal had language, and other “symbolic” behavior like religious belief, even though we have no evidence.

Of course, that same lack of evidence makes it impossible to know what they would’ve believed in.  But that’s okay.  Scientists cleave to the truth; writers get to make things up.

The religion I gave my protagonist does fit the scanty evidence we have, though.  For instance, some Neanderthal practiced cannibalism.  Knife marks on the bones show that they butchered the corpses of their own kind in the same manner as other oft-eaten animals.

We also know that, although both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens consumed a mix of meats and vegetables, Homo sapiens ate many small species.  Squirrels, rats, and the like.  Neanderthals, however, seem to have eaten exclusively large animals.  This is particularly striking because Homo sapiens often obtained more calories from the meat of small animals than large game.  The Neanderthal, with their superior eyesight, would’ve been better at spotting these critters than Homo sapiens were.

hvalsey_churchSo I imagined a religious taboo.  Religious food taboos are prevalent among modern human cultures, even in cases where the taboo seems highly detrimental to health.  Perhaps the best-known example is the religious proscription against eating fish among the Norse who settled Greenland.  Excluding fish from their diet made a large contribution to their culture’s demise, whereas the fish-eating Inuit living nearby survived.

It’s probably very easy to believe in spirits during an ice age, since you’d see your own manifest in wisps with every exhalation.  And so I let my Neanderthal protagonist believe that these spirits lived on in her own self.  In her mind, a clamor of souls takes up residence within her body, burgeoning whenever she eats meat.

If eating also meant ingesting a soul, a Neanderthal might consume only those strong, powerful creatures she wished to emulate.  She might eat her own fallen friends, hoping to keep them forever near.

squirrel_posingAt times she’d surely espy Homo sapiens eating squirrels, but the Neanderthal might conclude that these pusillanimous dietary choices contributed to the scrawny physiques and skittish behavior (always living in such large tribes!  And, throwing spears from a fearful distance!) of those interlopers.

But we will never know… because, around the time those Homo sapiens interlopers arrived, the Neanderthals all died.

The Neanderthal extinction may not have been their (our) fault.  After all, the climate was changing.  Other large species went extinct or vanished from these regions during the same period.  Or, even if the Neanderthal extinction was caused by Homo sapiens, it might not have meant outright war, murder with rocks and spears.  Perhaps competition for food or safe shelter drove the Neanderthal to death…

But that’s not how we humans have usually treated ancestral inhabitants when we embark on a new frontier.  The historical record is replete with examples of methodical, knowing slaughter.  There is only so much world to go around, and natural selection has no reason to favor those who share.

And yet.  We purport to be thinking, reasoning creatures.  We can be better than our genes.

On ‘Cat’s Cradle’ and whether or not it’s sci-fi.

On ‘Cat’s Cradle’ and whether or not it’s sci-fi.

The bookshelves at the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project are chaotic.  Not everyone who volunteers there is a big reader, so sometimes people don’t know where a book might belong.  But the bigger problem is with books themselves.  Most — especially the good ones — are about more than one thing.

The shelves have vague categories to make it easier to find a book that’ll be enjoyed by, say, a prisoner who wants to read about Norse mythology, or about classic cars, or about gardening, etc.  But many books could reasonably fit in several different places.  I always use the rule of thumb, “Where would I look for this if I was filling a package for somebody who’d love it?”, but, even then, somebody else’s brain might leap to different ideas after reading the exact same inmate’s letter.

Last week, for instance, a few of us spent a minute arguing about Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.  Not a real argument, mind you, just the kind of friendly debate that people use to distract themselves from feeling sad about the fact that they’re filling a package for a 32-year-old dude who’s been in jail since he turned 19 for possession of small amounts of cocaine.  A little levity helps sometimes.

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Image by wplynn on Flickr.

So, Cat’s Cradle?  I say “literary fiction.”  Second choice, “classics.”  But another well-read volunteer said, “sci fi.”  She forwarded the evidence of “ice-9,” a special type of water crystal that could destroy the world.

The book is definitely speculative.  You don’t need to worry that someone will drop a small seed crystal of ice-9 into the ocean and cause everyone to freeze.  But it’s very mildly speculative, I’d say.  Less so that the imaginary drugs in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, for instance, or the elevators in Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, or even the packing density of folded paper in Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age.  All of those, to my knowledge, are very rarely considered to be science fiction.

Not only does Cat’s Cradle seem to be less speculative than any of those, but it also features some of my favorite writing about how the general populace interacts with scientific findings.  Consider this passage from early in the book, where the narrator has gone to investigate a famous recently-deceased scientist.

“He was supposed to be our commencement speaker,” said Sandra.

          “Who was?” I asked.

          “Dr. Hoenikker–the old man.”

          “What did he say?”

          “He didn’t show up.”

          “So you didn’t get a commencement address?”

          “Oh, we got one.  Dr. Breed, the one you’re gonna see tomorrow, he showed up, all out of breath, and he gave some kind of talk.”

          “What did he say?”

          “He said he hoped a lot of us would have careers in science,” she said.  She didn’t see anything funny in that.  She was remembering a lesson that had impressed her.  She was repeating it gropingly, dutifully.  “He said, the trouble with the world was…”

          She had to stop and think.

          “The trouble with the world was,” she continued hesitatingly, “that people were still superstitious instead of scientific.  He was if everybody would study science more, there wouldn’t be all the trouble there was.”

          “He said science was going to discover the basic secret of life someday,” the bartender put in.  He scratched his head and frowned.  “Didn’t I read in the paper the other day where they’d finally found out what it was?”

          “I missed that,” I murmured.

          “I saw that,” said Sandra.  “About two days ago.”

          “That’s right,” said the bartender.

          “What is the secret of life?” I asked.

          “I forget,” said Sandra.

          “Protein,” the bartender declared.  “They found out something about protein.”

          “Yeah,” said Sandra, “that’s it.”

Vonnegut beautifully captures the way science is often treated in the popular press.  Exceedingly important, graced with insight about the secret of life… and yet still the purvey of weirdos.  Other people.  For the masses, it’s enough to read that scientists have discovered something or other, forget the details, and carry on with their lives.

I mean, I do this too.  I read an article that there might be another planet in our solar system — five or so other astronomical objects have peculiar orbits, suggesting that they’ve been influenced by a heavy, perhaps planet-sized, object — nodded, murmured “That’s nice,” but didn’t feel a thing.

Or there was — and this is even closer to the “secret of life” gag in Vonnegut’s passage — the time when I read that astronomers had tallied the Doppler shifts for many distant objects and decided that our universe will not be collapsing in on itself. The current best guess for how the universe will end is that expanding space will push everything apart faster and faster until emptiness abounds. The universe will be dark, every particle lonely and cold.

I read about all that, thought, “Whoa, that’s heavy,” and drew a comic strip. That’s all, though. Unveiled secrets of the universe didn’t change how I live my life.

dave55

So, the science behind ice-9?  It’s pretty standard thermodynamics.  When water freezes, there are several different configurations it might solidify into, and each of these has a slightly different stability.  Vonnegut’s ice-9 is a hypothetical configuration that is very stable but difficult to form.

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Image by wplynn on Flickr.

Describing this to math and numbers people — to scientists — is pretty easy.  I’d draw a graph that shows a deep valley hidden by a mountain.  I’d say “this is the energy level diagram for ice-9, and even though water would be happiest in its lowest-energy state, it can’t get there because it’d pass through such a high-energy transition state.”  If you were a scientist, you’d nod sagely — “yes yes, we learned all this as undergraduates.”  If you’re not, I can only assume that your eyes would glaze over with boredom.

So here’s an analogy instead: qwerty computer keyboards are ridiculous.  They were designed to make people type slowly.  A world in which everyone used an efficient keyboard layout would be better.  But the process of changing everything would be aggravating.  Having to remember two different layouts — because the computers at the public library would presumably still have qwerty keyboards long after you’d upgraded your rig at home — would make our fingers slow and sloppy.

Or those early white settlers traveling westward through America.  If they could reach California, they’d be living easy.  The weather’s nice, the soil fertile.  But there were dangerous mountains in the way.  While crossing those mountains (my information here comes solely from the Oregon Trail computer game), people were dropping left & right (and having naughty words engraved on their tombstones) from dysentery.

Vonnegut proposed, though, that a seed crystal of ice-9 would lower the energy barrier of that transition state.  This is a pretty common phenomenon, actually.  Ice-9 works the same way as mad cow disease.  Prions are a protein configuration more stable than the functional form but difficult to reach.  Once a small amount of the protein assumes that new configuration, though, it can catalyze the mis-folding of all the rest in your brain.

Just like the suddenly-solid oceans at the end of Cat’s Cradle, prions freeze up the brain.  Then the brain stops working.  Then you’re all done being alive.

Prion_subdomain-colored_sec_structure.png
A human prion protein.

Just you, though.  Ice-9 killed everybody.  So, sure, Cat’s Cradle is sci-fi-esque.  But quite realistic.  Plus — and I suppose this is the biggest reason why I wouldn’t call it science fiction — Vonnegut wastes little time explaining how his speculations work.  You can believe him or not — yes, his ideas are reasonable, but he feels no imperative to prove that to you.  Instead he introduces the mild speculation as a way to investigate how people behave.

Vonnegut winks at his readers.  At the beginning of the book his character dutifully recites that if everyone studied science more, the world’s troubles would be over.  But Vonnegut himself glosses over the science of his world, instead lavishly describing the philosophies that arose in response to the discovery of ice-9.

I think the dude’s priorities are in the right place.  I mean, look at our society.  We’re spending huge amounts of money investigating rare childhood diseases, or the routine maladies of age… but we spend a pittance on childhood nutrition, which would benefit people far more.  Our society’s biggest problems are philosophical.  We don’t help those children: they earned their fate by choosing to be born poor.

On poetry: Erin Belieu’s ‘When at a Certain Party in NYC’

On poetry: Erin Belieu’s ‘When at a Certain Party in NYC’

I live in a town with wonderful libraries.  And this has left me spoiled.

Even though Bloomington is a small town, our municipal library is one of the best I’ve visited.  I think it compares favorably to libraries in much wealthier, more densely-populated areas, like Silicon Valley and Toronto.  And within a mile’s walk of the town library is the main university library with its ten story tower of stacks.  Plus there are specialty collections scattered across campus, like the rare books library, the black culture center library, the education library, the disabilities library, the physics library, the life sciences library…

Given that I’m a bibliophilic glutton, I visit them all.

4621636807_791d6de73c_bBut the same way wealthy people become readily habituated to excess and can still feel unsatisfied with what they have, our splendorous libraries have given me absurd expectations & I can find myself feeling petulant when these go unfulfilled.  For instance, the New York Times Book Review recently published their annual poetry issue, and as I was reading through it I hopped over to my computer to look up some call numbers for books I wanted to borrow.  But none of my local libraries had purchased these books yet!

A tragedy!

I did notice, however, that several of the poets whose new books I wanted to read had been included in The Best American Poetry 2011.  I sighed a beleaguered sigh and placed a hold request for this volume instead.  I hadn’t read it yet.  If I were the sort of person who likes puns, I’d probably now write something like “I’m less well-versed in contemporary poetry than prose.”  But I’m not, so I won’t.

Not everything in the collection was meant for me.  This is probably a good thing.  Editors Kevin Young and David Lehman would’ve been doing a poor job if every poem they picked appealed to one particular (& peculiar) person’s taste.

And yet, despite knowing full well that not everyone shares the same taste in poetry, I can’t help but recommend you read (or at least experience) my favorite from the collection, Erin Belieu’s gorgeous, plain-spoken, devilishly clever “When at a Certain Party in NYC.”  In such a short space she captures so much of what people love & hate about New York.  And her words are perfect: the Midwest described as the great asphalt parking lot of our middle, the crushing self-doubt of living amongst the razor-blade women with their strategic bones and learning that even their toothpaste is somehow more desirable than yours.

I could go on quoting charming phrases from her work, but a brief internet search revealed that I don’t need to: from the comfort of your own wherever you are, you can click the link below and hear her poem in its entirety.  The only problem is that the narrator zips through so quickly that you probably won’t have time to savor everything worth savoring, but… why not hear it twice?

On octopus literature, a reprise: what would books be like if we didn’t love gossip?

On octopus literature, a reprise: what would books be like if we didn’t love gossip?

A few months ago, I lost several days reading about the structure of octopus brains.  A fascinating subject — they are incredibly intelligent creatures despite sharing little evolutionary history with any other intelligent species.  And their minds are organized differently from our own.

Human minds are highly centralized — we can’t do much without our head being involved.  Whereas octopus minds seem to be distributed throughout their bodies.  It’s difficult to address how this might feel for an octopus, but researchers have studied the behavior of hacked-off octopus tentacles.  An octopus tentacle can behave intelligently even when it’s not connected to the rest of the body.  Each limb may have something akin to a mind of its own.

Which seems fascinating from the perspective of narrative.  The way human minds seem to work is, first our subconscious makes a decision, then a signal is sent to our muscles.  We speak, or press a button, or pull our hand away from something hot. And then, last, our conscious mind begins rationalizing why we made that choice.

The temporal sequencing is wacky, sure. But for the purpose of this essay, the important concept is that a centralized brain makes all the choices and constructs a coherent narrative for why each choice was made.

An octopus might find it more difficult to construct a single unifying narrative to explain its actions in a way that we humans would consider logical.  There are hints that octopus tentacles have characteristics akin to personalities — some behave as though shy, some as though bold, some aggressive, some curious.  If one tentacle is trying to hide while another is trying to attack, there might not be a single internal narrative that describes the creature’s self-sabotage.

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And what might your personality be? Shy? Bold? Inquisitive? Photo by Jaula De Ardilla.

From our perspective, octopus consciousness might be like trying to explain in one sweep the behavior of an entire rambunctious dysfunctional family.  Sure, some calamities would affect them all together, but moment by moment each family member might have his or her own distinct interests.  A daughter who wants to stay out late, a mother who wants her daughter home by nine, a father who wants somebody to play catch in the yard, a son who just wants to be left alone…

It’s not that the collective is inexplicable, it’s just that we humans are unaccustomed to thinking of collectives like that as representing a single consciousness.  We look for logical motivations on a smaller scale — centralized minds — than an octopus might embrace as its worldview.

Anyway, I thought this might have a big impact on the way octopus literature would be structured.  Once, you know, they develop a language, start spinning myths, etc.

(To the best of my knowledge, there is no octopus language.  If they have one that’s chemical- or color-based, I’m not sure I would even notice.  Someone else probably would’ve, though.)

unnamed (1)While reading Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus, I learned that there would probably be another major difference between octopus literature and our own.  Their literature might seem chaotic to human readers, yes.  But also, our literature is often character-drivenOur brains evolved to gossip, and the books that most human readers love most feature charming, striking individuals.  I love The Idiot largely because of the dynamic between Myshkin and Rogozhin, In Search of Lost Time for the vicarious misery of watching Marcel’s crumbling relationship with Albertine.  Readers of Game of Thrones are immersed in a rich world of political intrigue, tracking everyone’s motives as they push against each other.

Octopus readers might not care about any of that.  From Montgomery’s book:

Belonging to a group is one of humankind’s deepest desires.  We’re a social species, like our primate ancestors.  Evolutionary biologists suggest that keeping track of our many social relationships over our long lives was one of the factors driving the evolution of the human brain.  In fact, intelligence itself is most often associated with similarly social and long-lived creatures, like chimps, elephants, parrots, and whales.

But octopuses represent the opposite end of this spectrum.  They are famously short-lived, and most do not appear to be social.  There are intriguing exceptions: Male and female lesser Pacific striped octopuses, for instance, sometimes cohabit in pairs, sharing a single den.  Groups of these octopuses may live in associations of forty or more animals — a fact so unexpected that it was disbelieved and unpublished for thirty years, until Richard Ross of the Steinhart Aquarium recently raised the long-forgotten species in his home lab.  But the giant Pacific, at least, is thought to seek company only at the end of its life, to mate.  And even that is an iffy proposition, as one known outcome is the literal dinner date, when one octopus eats the other.  If not to interact with fellow octopuses, what is their intelligence for?  If octopuses don’t interact with each other, why would they want to interact with us?

Jennifer, the octopus psychologist, says, “The same thing that got them their smarts isn’t the same thing that got us our smarts.”  Octopus and human intelligence evolved separately and for different reasons.  She believes the event driving the octopus toward intelligence was the loss of the ancestral shell.  Losing the shell freed the animal for mobility.  An octopus, unlike a clam, does not have to wait for food to find it; the octopus can hunt like a tiger.  And while most octopuses love crab best, a single octopus may hunt many dozens of different prey species, each of which demands a different hunting strategy, a different skill set, a different set of decisions to make and modify.  Will you camouflage yourself for a stalk-and-ambush attack?  Shoot through the sea with your siphon for a quick chase?  Crawl out of the water to capture escaping prey?

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Come to think of it, the mammalian Auntie Ferret would also enjoy reading “The Loner’s Guide to Building Fabulous Underwater Contraptions”

All of which made me realize, an octopus reader would probably be indifferent to well-crafted characters with rich inner lives.  An octopus would probably care more far more about the plot than the characters.  My assumption is that an ideal octopus novel would be  a thriller, crammed full of facts, action-packed, and weave together numerous barely-integrated narratives.

Indeed, octopus readers might not like Montgomery’s book, since she devotes so much space to the tangled lives and interactions of the humans who love and study them.  The Soul of an Octopus is clearly intended for a human audience.

I’d be curious to read a book written specifically for an octopus someday… although it’s probable that, like music composed specifically for tamarin monkeys, octopus literature would seem awful to me.

On humor (and bad medical advice).

On humor (and bad medical advice).

Back when she lived in town with us, Auntie Ferret would often accompany me to the public library to work.  We would sit in the linoleum tiled area near the magazines.  I would type.  She would draw.

Of course, the process of creating artwork, at least in every field I know about, seems to involve several-fold more time spent taking in new information, researching, appreciating at other people’s work, etc., than time actually spent creating.  In my case, the timing usually breaks down to about two hours per day spent typing, six hours spent reading.  Auntie Ferret, because hers is a more time-intensive craft, probably spends equal time drawing and reading.

All well and good.  The problem, from the perspective of someone sitting near her to work, is that Auntie Ferret is a very effulgent reader.  Which can be distracting.  She occasionally saunters to the magazine rack to scoop up another armful of bodybuilding magazines, then chortles with gusto as she read them.  And then, of course, she reads the passage aloud.

CaptureA typical conversation between us:

FC: Huh.  Yeah.  That’s pretty horrible.  But I should get back to work.

AF: Okay, okay… but wait!  Wait, listen to this.  On ViperPRO, I was so vasculated I thought I’d EXPLODE!

An hour might pass and I’d get nothing done.  Whereas the time qualified as research for her.  Her webcomic features a hearty dose of meat-head satire.

Eventually I learned my lesson.  No, not to sit somewhere else, although I imagine that’s what a more timid ferretwrangler might do.  Instead I realized that I should incorporate her research into my own work.

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THIS SHIT SAVED MY LOVE LIFE

There’s lots of dating advice out there.  Tips on what stereo system to buy, which records to play, what wine to drink, which celebrity cologne smells like you.  Lifting guides for omnivores and for vegans and for the gluten-free, for those who augment their training stacks with GHB and those who wanna stick with anabolic steroids alone.  And detailed instructions for how to act — secret secrets of the world’s best pickup artists! — although until they invent a hieroglyphic language that women can’t read, publication inevitably weakens those once-secret strategies.

I read the guides.  Seemed like a lot of common sense.  Maintain eye contact.  Ply her with drinks.  Initiate unwanted touching.  Belittle her relentlessly.  Act like the abusive ex-boyfriend you’d someday like to be.  But, let’s face it, some of us are sensitive dudes.  When there’s an opportunity for a killer neg, we compliment our interlocutor on her witty banter.  Then wreck the moment when we ask before lunging in for a snog.

Does this sound like you?  Striking out cause you don’t have that flirtatious take-no-prisoners attitude?  Are you thinking to yourself, sensitive dudes would enjoy the occasional sexual encounter, too?

Well, I am here for you, man.  I was in that situation.  But I fixed it.  This shit worked for me, and I swear it can work for you.

You need to eat more cat feces.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/stalkerr/134280257Not for the fun of it, mind you.  You need to eat cat feces to increase your exposure to Toxoplasma gondii.  It’s a microscopic parasite that evolved to control mammalian behavior.

Maybe that sounds bad.  Parasitic mind control?  That’s some freaky shit, right?  But, let me ask you: do you wanna get laid, or not?

See, there’s mind control like Frank Sinatra zonked by a playing card and realizing it’s time to blow somebody’s brains out, and then there’s mind control like toxo.  What’s it do?  It makes you bolder.  More confident.  It boosts testosterone.  Makes you happier, by helping you synthesize dopamine.  Ever wonder why those gel-heads always duck to the back and snort coke before they make a move?  Dopamine.  But with toxo, you won’t need blow.

Dudes with toxoplasmosis are taller that dudes without.  They’re consistently rated more attractive on Tinder-style image-only surveys.  Ingest enough of this parasite to get cysts throughout your brain and you’ll be a handsome, aggressive, risk-taking sex machine.  And, get this: toxo makes you smarter, too!

(Note: to date, intellectual enhancement has been observed only in females infected with Toxoplasma gondii.  In males, the opposite effect is seen.  Toxo invariably makes males into slower, dumber studmuffins.  But, you’re still with me, right?  What good is your brain if you’re sitting up alone at night, staring at a computer screen, not getting laid?)

Of course, not every cat has toxo.  If you adopt a dud, you’re wasting your time.  Masticating those slimy colon-prints for nothing.  Which, right, here’s something else you should know: cranberry juice.  Nothing else washes out the taste.  Even cranberry juice doesn’t work that well.

Eat a few scoops of feces from some defective no-parasite cat, let me tell you, you’re gonna be pissed.

That’s why my little brother and I are starting this company where we’ll ship you fresh excrement from known toxoplasma-bearing felines.  Each turd guaranteed >100 cyst-forming-units or your money back!, that’s what the packaging will say.  We’re not open for business yet — FDA approval is such a bitch that we might give up on it altogether and market our product as a nutritional supplement — but we’ve already registered the domain name www.toxrocks.com.

Check us out.  Like our shit on Facebook.  And if you can’t wait till our little operation is up and running, go find yourself a parasite-riddled cat and start gobbling that shit up.  Which is advice I’m willing to give gratis, cause I care about my fellow man.

*************

Doling out terrible medical advice isn’t necessarily funny… what if people actually follow your advice?  But my thinking is, the world’s full of medical advice a good deal more harmful than this.  And that’s all given sincerely.  At the playground one day, a mother nodded approvingly at my daughter’s bare feet and told me, “It’s good you’re letting her get rid of some of those excess electrons.”

I was puzzled.  Later I found out that some people believe that wearing shoes all the time makes them build up an appreciable electric charge.

Or the bodybuilding magazines.

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Interspersed with articles like a dude recounting the time he tackled his brown-skinned buddy on New Year’s because the buddy was counting down in a foreign language and so dude thought he was a terrorist (hilarious, bro!) are advertisements for all variety of untested chemicals.  Or there’s the self-generated schemes, like the claim, “I’ve got a pitbull and he’s f___in’ ripped.  And I figured, he looks like that on dogfood?  So that’s all I eat now, too.”

Um, I’m gonna go stand over there now, thank you.

Plus, I think it makes a difference whom bad advice is targeted toward.  I’m not a huge fan of machismo bodybuilding culture.  And I don’t know if you’ve seen many modern dating guides (a la Neil Strauss’s The Game, or the sort of thing that won’t be funded through Kickstarter ever again), but I think it’s reasonable to suggest to readers of such guides that they oughta eat more cat feces.

On chess as a window to the soul.

On chess as a window to the soul.

chessI loved chess growing up, enough that I always felt a shiver of pleasure when games appeared in novels.  Like the pre-felo de se game in Love in the Time of Cholera, the grim filial sacrifice in Vonnegut’s “All the King’s Horses,” the entirety of The Defense ...

ompchessIf you also are a fan of chess in art, you’ll definitely want to watch Andrew Bujalski’s brilliant mockumentary Computer Chess.  The film manages to be incredibly entertaining and humorous while addressing big ideas about artificial intelligence, the treatment of women in science, power structures between underlings and their professional superiors, and the difficulty of bridging cognitive gaps between people with different value systems.  With that list of themes, and the film being shot in black & white by shaky handheld cameras, it could’ve so easily been dull and dry… but it’s a blast.

One reason why chess has appeared so often in artistic works is the claim that people reveal their personalities through their playing styles.  I never agreed with this.  Sure, you can play aggressively, you can play cautiously.  The biggest distinction, though, is between playing well or poorly.  And even then, only a small set of moves are available each turn.  With only twenty moves to choose from for the first turn, and hardly ever more than fifty, many of them strategically bad, how much of your personality can you reveal?

goThat’s why I was so excited when I discovered Go.  It’s a rough cultural equivalent to chess, but on any turn there are a much wider range of options that seem to be strategically reasonable (I say “seem to be,” because, unlike with chess, computers still can’t beat the best Go players, so we don’t have a clear algorithmic understanding to identify the best moves).

At the beginning of a game of Go, there are hundreds of options to choose from for each move.  And, unlike with chess, there’s no certainty that a slightly more aggressive move, or a slightly more timid one — setting a piece down very near an opponent’s, or father away — is better or worse than the other options.  Toward the beginning of the game, at least, your personality is less likely to be squelched by strategic constraints.

I figured that this abundance of choices meant games of Go would be more effective literary devices than chess games.  So far, though, I haven’t come across literary Go games that I’ve enjoyed as much as those chess matches cited above.  I’ve only read a few, though; maybe ones that’ll floor me are out there somewhere.

But, right, this essay is supposed to be about chess, not Go.  Because I eventually realized that chess does reveal the players’ personalities… as long as they’re not following the rules.  Consider this monologue from Burroughs’s Queer (a bit of context that might help explain the speaker’s casual racism: Queer is, in my opinion, the best novel about unrequited love.  The speaker is trying, and failing, to get the man he loves to pay attention to him.  His aggrieved petulance and insobriety lead him to tell increasingly vicious, mean-spirited stories):

Art by Christiaan Tonnis.
Art by Christiaan Tonnis.

“I was reading up on chess.  Arabs invented it, and I’m not surprised.  Nobody can sit like an Arab.  The classical Arab chess game was simply a sitting contest.  When both contestants starved to death it was a stalemate.”  Lee paused and took a long drink.

“During the Baroque period of chess the practice of harrying your opponent with some annoying mannerism came into general use.  Some players used dental floss, others cracked their joints or blew saliva bubbles.  The method was constantly developed.  In the 1917 match at Baghdad, the Arab Arachnid Khayam defeated the German master Kurt Schlemiel by humming ‘I’ll Be Around When You’re Gone’ forty-thousand times, and each time reaching his hand towards the board as if he intended to make a move.  Schlemiel went into convulsions finally.

“Did you ever have the good fortune to see the Italian master Tetrazzini perform?”  Lee lit Mary’s cigarette.  “I say ‘perform’ advisedly, because he was a great showman, and like all showmen, not above charlatanism and at times downright trickery.  Sometimes he used smoke screens to hide his maneuvers from the opposition — I mean literal smoke screens, of course.  He had a corps of trained idiots who would rush in at a given signal and eat all the pieces.  With defeat staring him in the face — as it often did, because actually he knew nothing of chess but the rules and wasn’t too sure of those — he would leap up yelling, ‘You cheap bastard!  I saw you palm that queen!’ and ram a broken teacup into his opponent’s face.  In 1922 he was rid out of Prague on a rail.  The next time I saw Tetrazzini was in the Upper Ubangi.  A complete wreck.  Peddling unlicensed condoms.  That was the year of the rinderpest, when everything died, even the hyenas.”

Chess played that way clearly reveals the players’ personalities.  They’re no longer shackled by strategic constraints — the apparent lawlessness of the game resembles Calvinball more than traditional chess.

maThe chess game in Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City has a similar emphasis on personality over rules.  The Other City is a beautiful novel, and I think this passage is fairly representative of what I love about it.  Dream logic that is far enough removed from traditional reality that we expect weirdness, but not so weird as to be incomprehensible.  A real attention to detail in describing the oft-impossible physical surroundings.  And pervasive horror; this passage is followed by one describing a once-beautiful poet scarred by long use of a typewriter that struck him with poisonous quills each time he pressed the keys.  Even the description of the chess game has real nightmarish properties.  The stakes are high, but the rules are unclear.  Oh, and, many thanks to Gerald Turner for the translation; all translation seems difficult, but recreating this sort of surrealism in another language must’ve been particularly arduous.

The Book of Deserted Gardens speaks of this on the page with the greasy stain from noodle soup left by a scribe of long ago, who took fright when across the sun-drenched page there fell the horned shadow of a monster as it passed through the sleepy and desolate lanes of the city after defeating the aging king at a game of chess on the parched ramparts.  It was played with chessmen of sparkling ice; all that could be heard in the silence was the soft rattle of red and purple gemstones falling in the hour-glass alongside the chessboard; it was the monster’s vengeance for a bygone defeat in a contest beneath the high stone walls of the fortress, on which broke the waves of the nocturnal sea.  The stories do not tell the entire truth — monsters always return: one day, a familiar monster will ring your doorbell too, bearing a chessboard under its arm; it will persuade you to join it in a game of chess and you will be obliged to include in the game the carved figure of a tiger-headed spearman, a piece that moves in irregular, furtive spirals and can stray quite far from the chessboard — even out of the apartment.