(Un)Smiling Faces, in Black-and-White

Probably Mrs. John Coleman, from 'Wisconsin Death Trip'I’ve always liked black-and-white photographs — especially family snapshots (even of other people’s families) taken in the 1950s and earlier.

It’s not that they satisfy some inner longing for quaintness (I’m not a fan of quaintness in general, and the adjective “whimsical” often makes me want to reach for the X-Acto knife (especially, ha ha, when someone else uses the word)). Nor is it — just — a nostalgia for things which I know are gone, sometimes long gone.

No, it’s not the overall elegiac atmosphere. It’s not the places. It’s the faces of the people.

In candid snapshots, especially, those unguarded glimpses into the souls of their subjects reveal more than their words ever could — or, truth be told, than my own words ever could. But it’s something to aspire to. (Which is one reason why a near-cliché of fiction is the moment when the protagonist glimpses herself in a mirror, or examines the creases and tears in a photograph of himself as a boy. At some level, people’s faces say everything there is to be said about a person — at that very time, even, if photographed or if described in heartbreaking verbal detail.)

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Fact, Fiction, and the Gray In-Between

In a college linguistics course, I first encountered the work of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA), a pre-World War II organization — we’d probably call it a think tank, nowadays — which (per Wikipedia):

…formed with the general concern that increased amounts of propaganda were decreasing the public’s ability to develop their own critical thoughts. The purpose of the IPA was to spark rational thinking and provide a guide to help the public have well-informed discussions on current issues. “To teach people how to think rather than what to think.” The IPA focused on domestic propaganda issues that might become possible threats to the democratic ways of life.

I’m not going to use RAMH for political commentary, in one direction or the other. But in light of the political atmosphere in the US this year, I thought it might be useful to reiterate, briefly, the seven categories of propaganda techniques which the IPA identified:

  1. Name-calling
  2. Glittering generalities
  3. Transfer
  4. Testimonial
  5. Plain folks
  6. Card stacking
  7. Bandwagon

Each category is covered separately in links from the Wikipedia article. Another couple of excellent resources for further reading on this subject are:

  • Dr. Ronald B. Sandler’s 2005 essay, “Propaganda and How to Recognize It”
  • Aaron Delwiche’s propagandacritic Web site (which is where I found the image at the top of this post, “Glitter,” by Carol Lay)

For now, though, I wanted to highlight one specific tactic which politicians of all persuasions are especially fond of. It’s a sub-category of category 2, “glittering generalities,” and it’s summed up in a phrase which I still remember from that linguistics course: mere assertion.

Mere assertion is exactly what it says: the propagandist says that something is the case — is true — (that’s the “assertion” part) but does not offer any sort of substantive support for the claim (hence the “mere”). This tactic most often becomes useful when the politician is speaking under time constraints; the implication is, I could cite numerous pieces of evidence for that claim, but unfortunately I don’t have time.

I’m not going to quote mere-assertion examples from last night’s Vice-Presidential debate, although it wouldn’t be difficult. Instead, I’ll direct your attention to the transcript, available from numerous sources:

And, of course, don’t forget to visit the FactCheck.org site to help sort out the wheat of fact from the chaff of fiction and propaganda.

Edit to add: Bear in mind that FactCheck, and sites like it, seldom point out the true statements; they focus on the false, questionable, and/or fuzzy ones. So knowing that two debaters have a roughly equal number of bogus claims doesn’t mean much unless you account for the overall number of factual claims made by each of the two. (That is, for example, if both “teams” made 10 erroneous statements but one of them made a total of 50 factual claims while the other made only 10 — well, you see where this is going.) Also note that these sites don’t weight the importance of a false claim: someone who’s wrong on the average household income in Country X, but otherwise right, isn’t at nearly as much fault as someone who’s wrong on Country X’s ties to terrorism (and hence on its invasion-worthiness), but otherwise right.

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Things Pass Away

2 Autumn Leaves, by Kristie Shureen PhotographyFrom whiskey river:

September: it was the most beautiful of words, he’d always felt, evoking orange-flowers, swallows, and regret.

(Alexander Theroux)

For summer there, bear in mind, is a loitering gossip, that only begins to talk of leaving when September rises to go.

(George Washington Cable)


If we were not beings who pass quickly away like all other things, none of this would matter.

(Susan Murphy, Upside-Down Zen)

and (the single word don’t ringing loudly):

Why we don’t die

In late September many voices
Tell you you will die.
That leaf says it. That coolness.
All of them are right.

Our many souls — what
Can they do about it?
Nothing. They’re already
Part of the invisible.

Our souls have been
Longing to go home
Anyway. “It’s late,” they say.
“Lock the door, let’s go.”

The body doesn’t agree. It says,
“We buried a little iron
Ball under that tree.

Let’s go get it.”

(Robert Bly, Eating The Honey of Words: New and Selected Poems)

…and — not from whiskey river, just because I was curious about Bly’s “iron ball” and found this video, likewise on the theme of time, and of things which can happen too quickly to see or even imagine:

…and finally, because obvious though the selection is, this post just wouldn’t be complete without it:

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More on Setting: Height, Width, Depth, and…?

[Image at right: artist’s rendering of a four-dimensional hypercube, or tesseract]

Walter Tevis, who died in 1984, was the author of several popular novels made into very successful movies: The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. But he began his career writing straight-up science fiction. Among his earliest stories was “The Ifth of Oofth,” originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine in 1957 and anthologized numerous times thereafter.

In the story, the narrator visits a friend of his named Farnsworth. The latter has constructed a little doohickey of a gizmo which he wants to share, and hands it to the narrator:

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Ear Job (2): Hearing Aids

[This continues the post from a few weeks ago, when I first got into the issue of my hearing.]

Old advertisement: various ear trumpets

The school year 1963-64 (7th grade for me) was notable for a bunch of reasons. Certainly there was the JFK assassination, which I didn’t really “get” at the time. It was the year when I first read Catch-22, first read James Thurber, first read Will Cuppy. Although I can’t pin it down, exactly, I think it was in 7th grade when I first decided I wanted to Be A Writer (whatever the hell that meant).

And I got my first hearing aid.

For about six years, since my 1st-grade teacher Mrs. Burkholder noted the hearing problem (or rather, the lip-reading solution), Mom and Dad had been schlepping me across the Delaware River every now and then to Philadelphia — specifically, to Jefferson Hospital.

There, the docs had tried their darnedest to isolate the source of the problem: damaged auditory nerves? cochlear injury or simple insufficiency? something with the brain itself, maybe? was it congenital, built into the genes, or did “something happen” somewhere along the line to make what had once been normal hearing less-than-normal?

Bottom-line answer to all those questions was that I had what’s commonly called nerve deafness, regardless of what caused it. And since they couldn’t — still can’t — actually repair or replace auditory nerves, the only reasonable solution was a hearing aid.

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Book Tech Support

Going by the number of hits it gets, evidently my most popular post to date was back in June, titled “How Important Is Reading?” Here are some of the search terms which people have used to find this page:

  • how important is reading? (with and without the “?”)
  • is reading important? (ditto)
  • why is reading important (ditto)
  • why reading is important
  • why is reading so [!] important
  • important of reading
  • reading is important
  • how important is reading a book?

I’d probably feel better about the traffic that page has engendered if I’d actually contributed much in the way of content at there; after all, it’s pretty much just a video, with a couple introductory sentences. Still, it’s encouraging that so many people want to know about the subject.

Today’s post — again, with most of the content provided via video — is sort of in the same category. Rather than addressing the question of reading’s importance, though, this one starts with the assumption that reading is indeed important… so important, in fact, that if you don’t know what to do with a book, you simply must call upon a knowledgeable expert.

(The video — subtitled in English for philistines like me — is from the Norwegian TV show “Øystein og jeg,” with Øystein Backe and Rune Gokstad. It’s written by Knut Nærum.)

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Don’t Embarrass the Dog

As I’ve mentioned (briefly) before, The Missus and I have a recent addition to our household population: a Yorkshire terrier named Sophie. That is not Sophie over at the right — it’s one “Lexi Ann,” from the dogsinduds.com site. But it’s a good place to start this post.

We got Sophie as a “rescue dog,” which is to say that she was extracted from a bad, potentially dangerous situation by our local Big Dog Rescue group. (Yes, big: ha ha.) Many of the dogs in such situations have been in them from the start; Sophie’s case was different, in that her original owners had loved the bejeezus out of her, had taken exceptional care of her. It was just that their situation was about to change, and change radically.

From the evidence provided by Sophie’s behavior, we’ve concluded that she was probably very much spoiled by her original owners. For instance, together with her favorite toys and beds and such, we also got an entire basket of doggie clothes — some at the extreme of the “bad to the bone” outfit in the picture. We have almost never put any of these clothes on her and she seems happy with their absence. (Apparently kinda like the way many humans feel when they first “go commando.”)

The other night, The Missus’s sister and brother-in-law were coming over. Laura had already met Sophie, but Gary hadn’t. In order to give him the full benefit of The Sophie Experience, The Missus decided that Sophie should be wearing something cute when she met him. So saying, shortly before L&G’s arrival, The Missus put the dog into something that resembled a pale-blue pullover sweater.

[Update 7:06pm EDT: The Missus informs me that per usual, I here demonstrate shaky memory of a lady’s wardrobe. Only vaguely, apparently, could Sophie’s outfit be described as a pullover sweater, nor was it pale blue. It was a purple T-shirt… perhaps with some pale-blue trim and/or rhinestones. Please make the necessary adjustments as you continue reading, with gratitude for The Missus’s zeal for accurate reportage. :)]

Here’s what happened:

First, when she saw The Missus get the basket of clothes, Sophie meekly sat at her feet, her shoulders hunched over. She knew what was coming, see? And with an air one could describe only as glum, she accepted the selected sweater.

Second: The Missus brought Sophie out of the bedroom into the hall. However, Sophie would not by herself come into the living room. She lay down right at the threshold. C’mon, Sophie, said The Missus, it’s all right. Come on into the living room.

Nothing doing.

So then The Missus picked her up and carried her. When she placed the dog on the living-room floor, Sophie immediately sank to her belly and slunk around to the back of a chair.

If The Missus hadn’t removed the sweater at that point, we’re convinced Sophie would still be there. Cowering, in the glare of public attention.

But — surprise! — this isn’t a post about Sophie, not really, nor about dog ownership in general. It’s a post about writing.

In her two most recent posts over at the writing on the water blog, Marta has asked two seemingly unrelated questions which, it happens, are actually two sides of the same coin.

In the first of these two posts, she asks a writer’s eternal question:

…how do you know when a story is done?

In the second, the question is thornier (because its answer depends on the answerer):

What do you do if your negative feelings about your work threaten to overwhelm you? What convinces you that a writing life is not so bad?

Now, in the first, she’s asking about a story; in the second, about writing — the process, the career, the life. Yet the questions both boil down to the same thing: How do you know when to stop?

Of the replies to those questions, I think I most liked Shelly Lowenkopf‘s; he was answering the first, but (again) it works for the second as well:

I know a story is done when the things I attempt to pile onto it will have none of my embellishments and keep falling off of their own accord.

That (for me) is exactly the point where I know I’ve gone too far. It’s the point where the Yorkie, having meekly accepted the human’s decision, nevertheless slinks away to a corner — where someone new to it will (if the Yorkier is lucky) not see it at all.

And like I said, if you think the preceding paragraph is talking about a dog, you’re not reading carefully enough.

Apropos of nothing, although I guess if pressed I could say I’m trying to balance doglove with catlove, here’s a poem which will mean a lot to feline enthusiasts — and to any human, really, willing to accept the notion that cats might have something to teach us. It’s from today’s edition of The Writer’s Almanac.

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Paying Attention to Setting

Taino, Dominican Republic (photo by Dr. Lynne Guitar)

A few weeks ago, I read a blog entry somewhere about the claim (phrased variously) that the setting in a given work “becomes like [or even is] a character itself.” It drove the blogger crazy, because setting and character (in his/her opinion) have so little in common. Whatever my other reactions to the rant, it got me thinking about setting. About whether I’d ever really paid much attention (due or otherwise) to place in my fiction.

I didn’t think I’d ignored setting; in fact I’d mentioned in a comment somewhere else, shortly before, that I knew of a brief passage in Merry-Go-Round in which I’d described an old hotel in a way which — yes — almost made it seem, in retrospect, like a character. But I couldn’t think of any examples where I’d done much more than (say) list the geographical features of a town, the layout of a room.

Eventually I filed the question away, and forgot about it.

I’ve mentioned before, here on RAMH, that I’ve been spending several weeks going back to look at the book which (as the cliche goes) I think I may be meant to write. The working title, which I’m not completely satisfied with but use because I’ve got to refer to it somehow for chrissake, is Grail. (Don’t be misled by that title, though. This isn’t a medieval romance or historical novel. Events for the most part occur in the mid-1980s.)

I’ve taken it through 2½ drafts so far (the first in 1991). In this pass, I’m just recording in a word-processing document certain key events and character traits from the drafted version(s), so I can look at Grail‘s whole structure with fresh eyes, away from the words in which it’s cast. This is based at least in part on the theory that I’ve learned a lot about writing in the last 17 years (more or less), and therefore will probably want not just to edit a fresh draft of the book but honest-to-God rewrite the thing, from scratch.

So anyway, I’m going through the text earlier today, transcribing information, and I came to a chapter whose events are described in flashback.

It’s a memory of a character named Albert (Al) Castle who is — to the extent anyone is — the central figure in the book. The time is May, 1945. Corporal Castle, Seventh Army, USA, is in Germany. And he goes out for a walk– a walk that will change his life.

And that’s when I came across the specific passage to which I link below. I don’t make any claims to this as an example of setting-as-character; but I’ve gotta say, I was surprised by how much attention I’d paid to setting here.

(By the way, the photos on that page are just meant to be illustrative. They don’t depict exactly where this action takes place — in one case, not even roughly the same time.)

[Link to Grail: Excerpt]

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Learning to See

Continuing last Friday’s meditation on the topic of sight, and the things which we might see differently “if only”…

First, from whiskey river‘s commonplace book*:

Picasso is riding on a train and someone sits down next to him.

Recognizing who he is, the person asks, “Why don’t you paint people the way they really are?”

Picasso asks, “What do you mean by the way they really are?”

The man eagerly pulls out his wallet and shows Picasso a picture of his wife and says, “This is my wife.”

Picasso responds, “She looks rather small and flat, don’t you think?”

(by Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei; story also recounted elsewhere)

Not from whiskey river:

Jack London, by Arnold Genthe (taken 1906-1916)

When Jack London had his portrait made by the noted San Francisco photographer Arnold Genthe, London began the encounter with effusive praise for the photographic art of his friend and fellow bohemian, Genthe: “You must have a wonderful camera… It must be the best camera in the world… You must show me your camera.”

Genthe then used his standard studio camera to make what has since become a classic picture of Jack London.

When the sitting was finished, Genthe could not contain himself: “I have read your books, Jack, and I think they are important works of art. You must have a wonderful typewriter.”

(quoted at PhotoQuotes.com)

From The Luminous Landscape:

…a good photograph isn’t measured in line pairs per millimeter, MTF functions, S/N calculations, or any of the other measurements that photography enthusiasts recite like religious mantras. The most important tools that are used to take good photographs are the human eye, the human brain, and the human heart.

And finally, a little music. I’m not going to provide a bunch of links to online information about Ry Cooder — there’s a ton of it out there. I will say that if you don’t know his work, at all, I think you’re in for a treat. The number which follows (not one of his hits, but a performance I’ve always been fond of) is a straight-up instrumental version — a re-visioning — of an Ike & Tina Turner number called “I Think It’s Going to Work Out Fine.” Here’s what Rolling Stone said of the number in its review of Cooder’s 1979 Bop Till You Drop:

Cooder’s instrumental version of “I Think It’s Going to Work Out Fine” takes the sweet growl of the Ike and Tina Turner original and sets it against some easy, sexy self-assurance. Ike and Tina made this number into a toe-to-toe at midnight, but Cooder’s version is full of relaxed and low-slung afterglow.

“Relaxed and low-slung afterglow”: love that.

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* whiskey river’s “commonplace book” is what the site’s author calls its archives. Unlike most blog archives, though, whiskey river’s are not strictly speaking chronologically organized: “They are arranged here in random order, the way they were found.”

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Puzzlin’ Evidence… Done Hardened in Your Heart

Talking Heads was one of those bands which I probably never would have picked up on — not on my own, anyhow. Predictably, in retrospect, it took a nudge from my brother.

Or rather, a couple of different nudges. One of the later ones came in 1986, with the release of the musical film True Stories. Mike pointed me to a couple of reviews and then, somehow, he managed to corral a bunch of us to accompany him to Philadelphia to see it one night.

Nominally, it’s a Talking Heads film: the group released a not-quite-soundtrack album containing its versions of the songs. But in the film — written and directed by, and “starring,” the Heads’ lead singer, David Byrne — with few exceptions, the songs are performed by other people in the cast. For instance, a voodoo priest (played by gospel/R&B star Pops Staples) sings a song called “Papa Legba” to bring love and good fortune to Louis (The Dancing Bear) Fyne (played by John Goodman).

The general idea for the film came to him, Byrne has said, from tabloid stories — how they might represent people from a single town.

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