An Appetite for Meaning (Seasoned with Words)

'Mowing Word,' by user grob831 on Flickr

[Image: “Mowing Word,” by user grob831 on Flickr. (Used here under a Creative Commons license.) For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

Land of the Living
(excerpt)

Earlier tonight, a young monk, laughing,
splashed my face
with holy water. Then, just as unexpectedly,
he flew down a banister, and
for one millisecond
was an angel—robed,
without feet—
all irrepressible joy
and good news.

(Kathleen Norris [source])

…and:

If one day you become sick of words, as happens to us all, and you grow tired of hearing them, of saying them; if whichever you choose seems worn out, dull, disabled; if you feel nauseated when you hear “horrible” or “divine” for some everyday occurrence—you’ll not be cured, obviously, by alphabet soup.

You must do the following: cook a plate of al dente spaghetti dressed with the simplest seasoning—garlic, oil and chili. Over the pasta tossed in this mixture, grate a layer of Parmesan cheese. To the right of the deep plate full of the spaghetti thus prepared, place an open book. To the left, place an open book. In front of it a full glass of dry red wine. Any other company is not recommended. Turn the pages of each book at random, but they must both be poetry. Only good poets cure us of an overindulgence in words. Only simple essential food cures us of gluttony.

(Héctor Abad [source])

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Book Review: Night of the Animals, by Bill Broun

Cover: 'Night of the Animals,' by Bill BrounA couple reviews of Night of the Animals have alluded — unconvincingly, I think, despite superficial similarities — to Noah’s ark and/or more generally the Bible’s Book of Genesis.

Yes, it’s true: the novel’s mainspring is the saving of the world’s creatures; both the world’s destruction and its salvation are at stake. But if you hope and believe you’ll be getting a “retelling” of those Biblical stories, updated to a 21st-century landscape, you will be very surprised (maybe disappointed) by what you find in the book’s pages:

The genre, murky — a sort of near-future, dystopic science fiction/fantasy cast in prose perhaps a bit more “literary” than you’d expect; the time, about forty years from now, with numerous flashbacks to the 1960s; the setting, mostly London (and in the flashbacks, up in the Midlands region — the “waist” of the island). The dialogue is littered with dialect obscure enough to require clarifying footnotes.

But the biggest surprise among Night of the Animals’ conventional elements lies in its protagonist, Cuthbert Handley.

Sounds like the name of a stereotypically anal-retentive, mousey-in-stature librarian or clerk, eh? Maybe. But this Cuthbert Handley — well, no. He’s enormous in size, three (approaching four) hundred pounds of, well, fat. (Not that fat people cannot be heroes, but it defies convention.) He’s old (not that the aged cannot be heroes…): in a point in history where living to 120 years of age is common, Cuthbert himself is over 90, and held together not just by his own flesh and bones but by numerous artificial “BodyMods.” He belongs to a class referred to as the capital-I Indigent — all but homeless, rough-sleeping in parks and alleys, the lot.  Finally, he’s almost suicidally addicted to a hallucinogenic beverage called Flōt (not that penniless addicts cannot etc.); Flōt is apparently legal, and the book suggests that its use is both tacitly approved by the government and sneered at by the unaddicted upper class. (Not at all to suggest that they themselves don’t use it, but they — you know — have such better self-control, right?)

More deeply, Cuthbert lives in thrall to a specific childhood event: the drowning of his elder brother Drystan, while little Cuthbert could do nothing to save him. (Cuthbert himself nearly drowned in the same “adventure.”) Since Drystan’s body never turned up, Cuthbert has lived his entire life — while in a state of mental health declining to the point of near-madness — believing that Drystan never died: he was simply lost, waiting for Cuthbert to find him. Surely this is a delusion. Surely his Flōt addiction has compounded the problem.

That much is obvious to everyone Cuthbert has ever known, will ever know. And naturally, that much is obvious to the reader of Broun’s book…

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Book Review: Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Book cover: 'Aurora,' by Kim Stanley RobinsonRecognize that book cover? No, I’m not referring to the whole thing — just to the idea: remind you of another science-fiction image of recent vintage?

I’ll tell you what it made me think of: this classic movie-poster shot, from Gravity. I’ve used a wallpaper-sized variant of that image as a computer desktop for several years now, which sharpens the point of the message: When you’re in space, you are really, really alone.

The main cast who populate the pages of Aurora aren’t quite as aware of their utter aloneness in space as viewers of that book cover are. True, they know they live in an interstellar spaceship, their mission’s purpose to populate a world beyond the solar system. They know the distance to their new home is vast — nearly eight light years — and the duration of their journey there likewise almost unimaginably long.

Oh, sure: how could they not know it, at least at an intellectual level? After all, when we first encounter these people, we’re seeing not the original passengers and crew, but their descendants six and seven generations removed: people who’ve never set foot on — or even seen — Earth. Their starship left the orbit of Saturn about one hundred sixty years ago. It takes only a single spacesuited trip out of an airlock — just a glance through a telescope — to tell them how isolated they are.

But the book-cover image of that starship deceives: the ship is big. I mean, forget Starship Enterprise-class big: really big. It consists of these main components:

  • The spine — that single central stem surrounded by the rings — is itself ten kilometers (six and a quarter miles) long.
  • The two outer rings: each torus-shaped outer ring (designated Ring A and Ring B) contains twelve “biomes” (about which, more shortly) — cylinders, each a kilometer in diameter and four kilometers long.
  • Six spokes connecting the spine to each ring: although their dimensions are is never specified, a seat-of-the-pants estimate would make the total diameter about eighteen to twenty kilometers. Thus, each spoke would be about nine to ten kilometers long (depending on various factors).
  • Two inner rings: these are purely structural in nature, serving to “lock” the outer rings to the spine.

Like I said: really big. And it’s populated not just by a couple hundred people, but by a couple thousand. On top of which are all the animals: Earth species which in some cases, yes, are raised as livestock, but in others are simply left feral. This ship is not just a starship; it’s an ark…

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Potpourri, June 18th (2016 edition)

1959ish, I'd sayIt’s been a few months of hardware madness here — and if you know my tastes in computer stuff, you know they lean towards the software rather than the hardware side of things. So I haven’t been entirely happy during that time…

Back in mid-April, my two-terabyte (2TB) hard drive abruptly failed. It took me several weeks — educational ones, to be sure — to admit that I probably could not resuscitate the thing. I replaced it with a 3TB one, and all went swimmingly at first…

…at least, until I installed Windows 10 on it.

Here’s how my computer at home has been set up, now going back maybe five-six years:

The hard drive is divided into two (main) partitions, running two entirely different operating systems: Windows in the first partition, and Linux in the second. This is called a dual-boot setup: when you boot the computer, you’re prompted to select which operating system you want to run for this session. The default for me is Linux, but I do occasionally (rarely, actually) use Windows for one specific program or another.

The Windows side has moved progressively from Windows XP to Windows 7 and then finally to Windows 10, via the automatic (i.e., forced) upgrade which Microsoft “offers” to users of older versions. When I installed Windows 10 on the new hard drive, I was actually restoring it.

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Container, Meet the Thing(s) Contained

'A true photograph need not be explained, nor can it be contained in words,' by sk.fotography

[Image: “A true photograph need not be explained, nor can it be contained in words,” by sk.fotography. Found it on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river (italicized lines):

Dancing

It was my father taught my mother
how to dance.
I never knew that.
I thought it was the other way.
Ballroom was their style,
a graceful twirling,
curved arms and fancy footwork,
a green-eyed radio.

There is always more than you know.
There are always boxes
put away in the cellar,
worn shoes and cherished pictures,
notes you find later,
sheet music you can’t play.

A woman came on Wednesdays
with tapes of waltzes.
She tried to make him shuffle
around the floor with her.
She said it would be good for him.
He didn’t want to.

(Margaret Atwood [source])

and (italicized passage):

It is, of course, we who house poems as much as their words, and we ourselves must be the locus of poetry’s depth of newness. Still, the permeability seems to travel both ways: a changed self will find new meanings in a good poem, but a good poem also changes the shape of the self. Having read it, we are not who we were the moment before… Art lives in what it awakens in usIt is a triteness to say that the only thing to be counted upon is that what you count on will not be what comes. Utilitarian truths evaporate: we die. Poems allow us not only to bear the tally and toll of our transience, but to perceive, within their continually surprising abundance, a path through the grief of that insult into joy.

(Jane Hirshfield [source])

and:

Joy

Don’t cry, its only music,
someone’s voice is saying.
No one you love is dying.

It’s only music. And it was only spring,
the world’s unreasoning body
run amok, like a saint’s, with glory,
that overwhelmed a young girl
into unreasoning sadness.
Crazy, she told herself,
I should be dancing with happiness.

But it happened again. It happens
when we make bottomless love—
there follows a bottomless sadness
which is not despair
but its nameless opposite.
It has nothing to do with the passing of time.
It’s not about loss. It’s about
two seemingly parallel lines
suddenly coming together
inside us, in some place
that is still wilderness.

Joy, joy, the sopranos sing,
reaching for the shimmering notes
while our eyes fill with tears.

(Lisel Mueller [source])

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In the Land of What’sToCome

[Video: The Hello Strangers, last seen at RAMH in October 2014, released this video cover of Doris Day’s 1956 classic earlier this year — not coincidentally, on Day’s 91st birthday. Also not coincidentally, their grandfather Ronald Chace, had both sung with Doris Day and played second trombone in Les Brown’s Big Band during Day’s tenure with Brown in the 1940s. The Strangers recorded this song in Chace’s memory.]

From whiskey river:

After Thanksgiving

Lord, as Rilke says, the year bears down toward winter, past
the purification of the trees, the darkened brook.
Only 4:45, and the sky’s sheer black
clasps two clear planets and a skinny moon
as we drive quietly home from the airport,
the last kid gone.

The time of preparation’s over, the time of
harvesting the seed, the husk, the kernel, saving
what can be saved—weaves of sun like
rags of old flannel, provident peach stones,
pies, pickles, berry wines to
hold the sweetness for a few more months.

Now the mountains will settle into their old
cold habits, now the white
birch bones will rise
like all those thoughts we’ve tried to repress:
madness of the solstice, phosphorescent
logic that rules the fifteen-hour night!

Our children, gorged, encouraged, have taken off
in tiny shuddering planes. Plump with stuffing,
we too hurry away, holding hands, holding on.
Soon it’ll be January, soon snow will
shuffle down, cold feathers, swathing us in
inches of white silence—

and the ways of the ice
will be narrow, delicate.

(Sandra M. Gilbert [source])

and:

Language is the element of definition, the defining and descriptive incantation. It puts the coin between our teeth. It whistles the boat up. It shows us the city of light across the water. Without language there is no poetry, without poetry there’s just talk. Talk is cheap and proves nothing. Poetry is dear and difficult to come by. But it poles us across the river and puts a music in our ears. It moves us to contemplation. And what we contemplate, what we sing our hymns to and offer our prayers to, is what will reincarnate us in the natural world, and what will be our one hope for salvation in the What’sToCome.

(Charles Wright [source])

and:

How To Listen

Tilt your head slightly to one side and lift
your eyebrows expectantly. Ask questions.

Delve into the subject at hand or let
things come randomly. Don’t expect answers.

Forget everything you’ve ever done.
Make no comparisons. Simply listen.

Listen with your eyes, as if the story
you are hearing is happening right now.

Listen without blinking, as if a move
might frighten the truth away forever.

Don’t attempt to copy anything down.
Don’t bring a camera or a recorder.

This is your chance to listen carefully.
Your whole life might depend on what you hear.

(Joyce Sutphen [source — click on the ‘Two Poems’ link])

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Paying Attention to the Story that Was

Space colony of O'Neill cylinders (NASA Ames Research Center, via Wikipedia)

[Image: a so-called “space colony” consisting of a pair of O’Neill cylinders, courtesy of the NASA Ames Research Center (via Wikipedia). This image has little to do with the story (or the spaceship(s)) discussed in the post, but it felt suitably “epic” (and at least vaguely relevant).]

For a good while now — maybe a year and a half — I’ve been working on a science-fiction novel (working title: 23kpc). The action takes place almost entirely aboard an interstellar space ship, the ISS Tascheter; the protagonists, Guy and Missy Landis, are something like a spacegoing Nick and Nora Charles (cf. Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man stories, especially the films — starring William Powell and Myrna Loy — made from them).

About six months before starting 23kpc, I’d actually written a short novella, or long short story, featuring Guy and Missy and the Tascheter. That story sprang from nowhere in particular; I just wanted to try my hand at SF (again), and was at the time too distracted — by real life and the marketing (still in progress) of Seems to Fit — to focus on anything major. In fact, when I began writing it, I didn’t even know it was SF: it took me several sentences to realize it.

In the course of writing “Open and Shut,” as the original story was called, I realized many other things. I realized how little consideration I’d ever given to the practicalities of space travel, particularly from one star system to another. What would the ship have to be like? If it weren’t capable of faster-than-light (FTL) speeds, how could individual humans ever hope to survive such a journey? (I sure as hell didn’t want Guy, Missy, et al. to die en route — requiring the invention of fresh characters over and over and over…) Perhaps humans were somehow different then — evolved with significantly longer lifespans. Or perhaps there were some ways of keeping them inert for long stretches of time, à la “suspended animation”… or… or… And what about where they were going — what could they even hope to know about their destination? Had at least one other generation of humans preceded them into space? How could a “crew” of, say, a few dozen individuals, even hundreds of them, possibly keep going during a trip which might take not just decades but centuries?

And so on.

Well, I took “Open and Shut” through to the story’s end. But all those practical concerns compelled me to tackle the general project correctly, in its own right. Hence, 23kpc. It no doubt comes with its own set of problems, as I’ll realize when I re-read the whole thing (when I’m done writing the whole thing). But it’s backed by much more (read: any) research, and I think I’ve gotten a lot more of it “right.”

Still, “Open and Shut” has its virtues, especially as a seat-of-the-pants exercise. It gave me Guy and Missy, and several of the other main characters who’d show up in the novel as well. It gave me the Tascheter — in vastly different form. It gave me some of the underlying themes I’d been thinking about (e.g., the evolution of culture and language). It’s told in the present tense, and the first person (from Guy’s point of view), which makes the action feel more “immediate” (to me, anyhow). Finally, it gave me a certain clipped, smart-alecky tone which seemed well-suited to the characters. And re-reading the first few pages reminded me of how much fun I’d had back then…

What follows: the first few hundred words of that story. Hope you enjoy it, too!


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To Be, Not to Be, or Barely to Be?

'unbeing dead isn't being alive,' by Nicole Pierce on Flickr

[Image: “unbeing dead isn’t being alive,” by Nicole Pierce on Flickr. (Used under a Creative Commons license.) The title of this image alludes, apparently, to a quotation by E.E. Cummings — it’s quoted everywhere on the Web — but no one ever says exactly what work it comes from. Maybe he muttered it in his sleep?]

From whiskey river:

Form is certainty. All nature knows this, and we have no greater adviser. Clouds have forms, porous and shape-shifting, bumptious, fleecy. They are what clouds need to be, to be clouds. See a flock of them come, on the sled of the wind, all kneeling above the blue sea. And in the blue water, see the dolphin built to leap, the sea mouse skittering, see the ropy kelp with its air-filled bladders tugging it upward; see the albatross floating day after day on its three-jointed wings. Each form sets a tone, enables a destiny, strikes a note in the universe unlike any other. How can we ever stop looking? How can we ever turn away?

(Mary Oliver)

and:

Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise.

(Lewis Thomas)

and:

Late Hours

On summer nights the world
moves within earshot
on the interstate with its swish
and growl, and occasional siren
that sends chills through us.
Sometimes, on clear, still nights,
voices float into our bedroom,
lunar and fragmented,
as if the sky had let them go
long before our birth.

In winter we close the windows
and read Chekhov,
nearly weeping for his world.

What luxury, to be so happy
that we can grieve
over imaginary lives.

(Lisel Mueller)

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Getting There and Finding Here

'From Here to There,' by user 'allaboutgeorge' on Flickr

[Photo: “From Here to There,” by user “allaboutgeorge” on Flickr. (Used under a Creative Commons license.) The installation (called “HERETHERE” for obvious reasons) straddles the boundary between Berkeley and Oakland, California; some believe that it’s a sculptural joke based on Gertrude Stein’s “There is no there there” quip, which referred to Oakland. You can read about the original project proposal here.]

From whiskey river:

A labyrinth is an ancient device that compresses a journey into a small space, winds up a path like thread on a spool. It contains beginning, confusion, perseverance, arrival, and return. There at last the metaphysical journey of your life and your actual movements are one and the same. You may wander, may learn that in order to get to your destination you must turn away from it, become lost, spin about, and then only after the way has become overwhelming and absorbing, arrive, having gone the great journey without having gone far on the ground.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

and:

I don’t mean it’s easy or assured, there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet. But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating. And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe—that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.

(Mary Oliver [source]) [Read more…]

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The Things You Find (and Sometimes Need to Ignore)

'Everyone #177' (detail), by Rodney Glick. Carved and painted wood.

[Image: “Everyone #9/177” (carved and painted wooden sculpture), by Rodney Glick. See the note at the foot of this post for more information.]

From whiskey river:

The Blind Leading the Blind

Take my hand. There are two of us in this cave.
The sound you hear is water; you will hear it forever.
The ground you walk on is rock. I have been here before.
People come here to be born, to discover, to kiss,
to dream, and to dig and to kill. Watch for the mud.
Summer blows in with scent of horses and roses;
fall with the sound of sound breaking; winter shoves
its empty sleeve down the dark of your throat.
You will learn toads from diamonds, the fist from palm,
love from the sweat of love, falling from flying.
There are a thousand turnoffs. I have been here before.
Once I fell off a precipice. Once I found gold.
Once I stumbled on murder, the thin parts of a girl.
Walk on, keep walking, there are axes above us.
Watch for the occasional bits and bubbles of light—
Birthdays for you, recognitions: yourself, another.
Watch for the mud. Listen for bells, for beggars.
Something with wings went crazy against my chest once.
There are two of us here. Touch me.

(Lisel Mueller [source])

and:

One of the strangest things about life is that it will chug on, blind and oblivious, even as your private world—your little carved-out sphere—is twisting and morphing, even breaking apart. One day you have parents; the next day you’re an orphan. One day you have a place and a path. The next day you’re lost in the wilderness.

And still the sun rises and clouds mass and drift and people shop for groceries and toilets flush and blinds go up and down. That’s when you realize that most of it—life, the relentless mechanism of existing—isn’t about you. It doesn’t include you at all. It will thrust onward even after you’ve jumped the edge.

(Lauren Oliver [source])

and:

Crests

With a sigh the elevators begin to rise
in high blocks delicate as porcelain.
It will be a hot day out on the asphalt.
The traffic signs have drooping eyelids.

The land a steep slope to the sky.
Crest after crest, no proper shadow.
We hunt for You, flying
through the summer in cinemascope.

And in the evening I lie like a ship
with lights out, just at the right distance
from reality, while the crew
swarms in the parks ashore.

(Tomas Tranströmer [source])

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