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Dancing with really real stars

We went dancing last night, the star we danced with was really real, and we are happy to reply to Joan Acocella that we do have a ballroom in our neighborhood.

How well we danced is another question. Had there been a contest, we certainly would have been among the first dancers cast out. Couples drew complex sentences on the floor, a way of thinking we were unable to follow. Still, we danced some, and enjoyed the live and lively sound of the Pranksters, an 18-piece swing band that filled the stage with horns, rhythm, and vocalists. We had arrived an hour early to take advantage of a dancing class, learning just enough about triple-step swing to watch the dancers with increased interest. Our favorite couple, a lanky fellow and his sparse partner, flitted and flirted about the floor like two mosquitoes bouncing against the ceiling on a sultry night in August; by the end of the evening, a tie of sweat dripped down his shirt.

The crowd was diverse, and though the event was open to all ages, mostly probably older folks, the women with their malmy hair measured, the best men dancers wearing cowboy boots. A few couples entertained with period costume, but no Vegas-wear. A few young couples hopped about unceremoniously, the try-anything-once spirit alive and well. The evening seemed a come as you are and dance how you will affair. We took a few notes, thinking of a post, thinking about the difficulties of both dancing and writing.

Buckley and the hard work of writing

William F. Buckley, Jr. now occupies, we hope, a seat in the bleachers to the right of Home Plate. We’ve been looking through his Buckley: The Right Word. We were not surprised to find him weighing in on the reading crisis. This, from 1980: “The good news is that there are people around who are trying to discover why it is that American youth, year after year, are having greater and greater difficulty in expressing themselves. There are a lot of wisecracks readily available (“they have nothing to say”), but one tires quickly of them, and then genuine worry sets in” (p. 131). And having nothing to say did not dissuade John Cage, who said, in his “Lecture on Nothing,” “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it” (Silence, p. 109). Buckley finds fault with TV: “You can’t simultaneously spend four hours watching television and four hours reading good prose.” But he also acknowledges that any suspected blame does not seem to apply universally.

If any one fault can be ascribed, perhaps the sheer physical difficulty of writing, and writing correctly, must be to blame. We are looking for cause and effect, but can not find even correlation. The effete and elite are each stricken equally, as the case of the Harvard student, passing placement exams but sitting in Expos unable to write a sentence, demonstrates. Buckley is then thrown off base by the Dick Cavett caveat, “Why does it matter?” Then comes this thunderbolt: Buckley relates that William Shawn, his editor at the New Yorker, once told him, “I am afraid, Mr. Buckley, that you do not really know the proper use of the comma.” Buckley’s response: “If St. Peter had declared me unfit to enter the Kingdom of God, I could not have felt more searingly the reproach…” (p. 306). Things are as bad as they ever were because nothing has made things any easier.

Thinking about writing, and actually sitting down and doing the writing, are two different occupations. We can always start a book with a few chapters and claim a work in progress, even if we never pick it up again; but who benefits from this kind of deception? Buckley points to the hard work of writing: “Working on a novel, I like to write every day….On the other hand, don’t ever devote the entire day to doing just that….I’d like to see more novels not written by people who have all the time in the world to write them” (p. 285).

But if writing is hard work, “But how would the reader know?” Buckley asks. The answer to that question Toulmin gives us, arguing that the work the writer does not put in, the reader must. But in spite of the hard work, Buckley assures us there’s nothing else he’d rather be doing. “Writing, if it’s done at all, has got to yield net satisfaction….I’m simply saying that writing is terribly hard work.” So he allows for distractions, change of pace and location, ancillary pursuits. He listened to music while writing: “Yes, I have the record player on most of the time.…I don’t play jazz when I write. I don’t know why but I just plain don’t. But I do when I paint” (pp. 290-291).

We do listen to jazz when we write, almost exclusively, but usually instrumental, no vocals, which can be too distracting. But what’s the one significant takeaway we want to emphasize with regard to the hard practice of writing? What do we want from writing? What do we expect? We must write most days to develop answers to these and other questions about writing and reading. Posts may be warm up exercises to the real work.

Buckley, W. F., Jr. (1996). Buckley: The right word (Harvest Book edition, 1998). New York: Harcourt Brace &  Company.

The weightlessness of existentialism

Early yesterday, reading Nick Paumgarten on “The lives of elevators” (New Yorker, April 21), about a person stuck in one for forty-one hours, we were reminded of the weightlessness of reading and writing. The video, from the Kafkaesque security tape, is a work of art Warhol could have made; or Becket might have written a one-act play, but would have omitted the piano score, though the tempo is perfectly counterpointed to the Chaplinesque speed of the fast forwarded film. Of course, we also thought of John Cage: “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else” (“Lecture on Nothing,” Silence, p. 119).

Later, at the Triple-A baseball game in a cold, near empty ballpark, a woman in the row in front of us turned around and asked if we had a pen. She seemed surprised when we said yes, and pulled the pen out of our jacket pocket, handing it out to her. She was a few seats away, down the row in front of us. There was no one else around. She was bundled up for the cold day of the game, in wool cap, and she had brought a full pack of incidentals to the game, to help pass the time, the way some people do at a ballgame, but no pen. She got up and walked over, smiling, and took the pen.

The person stuck alone in the elevator is essentially weightless, can neither rise nor fall, cannot change seats. There is no exit. He pries open the doors to find a cement wall. He is a character in Sartre’s No Exit, sans the other people.  

Take a piece of blank typing paper. Fold it in half, then in thirds. Place the folded paper in a pocket with a pen. You never know when you might get stuck – in a station at the metro, waiting anywhere – and it will not be nearly so irritating thinking you might like to be somewhere else. Pen and paper provide one with a play against the angst of any existential waiting game.

Our Believer book award choices

Still reading the March/April 08 issue of the Believer, the “Film Issue.” Slavoj Zizek DVD included; have watched just the first part of it – a few ugly scenes from some lousy old horror films came too early in the DVD and we had to turn it off. That just means we are not fully committed to the values of the film community, which we knew – doesn’t say anything about Zizek.

We were reminded that Zizek was interviewed in the Believer July 04 issue, where we found his comments on Christianity interesting. The Mary Midgley interview in the February 08 issue was interesting on moral philosophy and imagination (anyone who can wrestle Dawkins down and pin him to the mat in seconds deserves more attention), so now we have a couple more books on our reading list. But the list is already so long, not sure when we’ll get to them. But we’re moving Mary up; we’ve just decided.

Anyway, the current issue includes the annual “…short readers’ survey” postcard, allowing one to “…participate in the forthcoming Believer Book Awards,” now in its fourth year, but only the second year they’ve invited readers to participate. We sent in our postcard. Here are our picks for fiction published in 2007 (three slots only): The Deportees, by Roddy Doyle (more reality of experience forged in the smithy of an Irish soul ); Inglorious, by Joanna Kavenna (don’t remember what brought this our way, an advance reader’s edition – but remarkable effort, probably does not achieve all of its goals, but very funny, sad, and deeper than most readers deserve); and No One Belongs Here More than You, by Miranda July (written in part while walking and watching locally – which most of us don’t take time for).

What’s the point, of the Believer awards? Don’t know, but not too concerned with that question. We took the opportunity to take stock of what we read last year, fiction and non-fiction and journals and magazines and blogs and eZines and papers, and to look at the reading year ahead, continuing the long journey, getting on a train, leaving one city of books, and reading to another.

Where weather and writing merge

In Joan Didion’s essay “The Santa Ana,” our psyches succumb to exotic weather, an atavistic vestige from when we lived outdoors. The Santa Ana blows dry and hot across the Los Angeles basin, purposefully, a theme exploring a thesis, exhaust flowing west out the boulevards, across the strands and beaches and into the waves, and out to the ends of the jetties and piers, and then across the flat salt water stretches of Santa Monica Bay. The smog sludges along with the wind out to the horizon where it obscures the setting sun, collecting in clouds like becalmed ships hovering, smoking, drifting off the edge.

When we lived in Santa Ana country, our interest in the wind was limited to its effects on surfing conditions. The offshore winds blow into the waves, holding them up, keeping them glassy. Surfers, young, living outdoors, we welcomed the Santa Ana winds. Where we live now the atavistic sense is stirred by the East Wind that blows on clear winter days out of the Gorge and across town. Sometimes in the summer the East Wind blows hot, but winter gets the longest swells, the winds so thin and cold they floss your bones. Locals say, simply, “The East Wind is coming,” and dress for wind chill factor, wrap their outdoor pipes, secure things out in the yard, looking up into their trees expectantly. The local news people tried one year to name the East Wind, but the name they came up with did not stick with the locals. The East Wind is still called the East Wind.

“The Santa Ana” was originally published in the Saturday Evening Post, whose readers apparently appreciated when weather and writing merged. The less obvious thesis of Didion’s essay is that our psyches succumb to writing and reading too, and, if not, we’re probably not reading what we need, what we should. We write to stir the Santa Ana within us, and we read for the same reason, to feel the East Wind blow within. We write and read to stir the Santa Ana in the basin of our brain, where our own angels lounge; we write and read to call the East Wind through the gorge of our complacency. If we don’t feel some extreme weather building within, something is missing. Joan Didion’s essay is the Santa Ana. When she writes, “There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension,” we know that the writing will be equally uneasy, unnaturally still, and tense.

Didion, J. (1979). Los Angeles notebook. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem (pp. 217-221). New York: Simon and Schuster.

What we will miss when newspapers disappear

Watching “Irma La Douce” last night, after reading “Out of Print,” Eric Alterman’s New Yorker piece, on newspapers dying, we realized that Eric omitted what we will miss when discarded newspaper can no longer be found lying around the house.


In “Irma La Douce,” Jack Lemmon, playing Nestor, the defrocked, now homeless policeman, spending the night with Irma, hangs curtains, improvised from newspaper, across her bare windows to shield her from the possibility of being seen from the Paris street below. He has already described to Irma how he often inserted a folded newspaper under his uniform jacket to help keep warm on rainy beats. Dramatizing the practical uses of newspaper, Nestor reminded us of Red Skelton’s sleeping on the park bench skits, under and on blankets and mattresses of newspaper.


What else is throwaway newspaper good for? Wrapping for fish, and rolled newspapers, soaked in a tub of water, then dried, make efficient fireplace logs. The logs burn slowly and evenly with minimal smoke, stack and store neatly, and pack easily for camping trips. When we were kids, we copied the colorful Sunday comics onto pancakes of Silly Putty. Nowadays, we post our favorite comics, cut from the newspaper, onto the icebox. We rely on newspaper for kitty and puppy mishaps, bird cage lining, and party spills. Newspaper is an effective window wipe, for car and house, makes good fly swatters and fans, and comes in handy for arts and crafts, and for masking and painting jobs. We had an uncle who taught us how to make pirate hats from newspaper. Our spouse makes sensible use of newspaper coupons. The Op-Ed page, slipped unceremoniously under the commode door – bereft in a TP shortage, one wouldn’t treat even a week old New Yorker like that. In elementary school we used newspaper to cover our text books. Gone too, after newspapers die, the paper drive fundraiser.


Finally, we will miss the frap of the morning paper tossed onto the front porch, a reliable alarm clock, or sometimes we hear the paper sliding across the pavement of the drive, announcing rain (splat) or sun (long, dry skid). No doubt, others can add to our list of what will be missed with the dying of the newspaper, more mere memories added to the detritus of 20th century anthropological curiosities.

But newspaper is organic. It can be added to the compost bin, and after breaking down can be used as mulch to spread around the Web garden.  

Baseball and the parts of speech

Opening day of baseball should be declared a national holiday. Today’s the big day. In our area we’ve experienced snow flurries, rhubarbs of hail, and sleet, wind, and everyday rain this past week. But now the sun is supposed to make an appearance. Yet we know everything remains imperfect. We know the sun will not shine on every game. And we’ll let Malcolm Gladwell worry about baseball and drugs. We’re concerned about baseball and the parts of speech.  

E. B. White encourages us to write with nouns and verbs: “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place” (p. 71). William Zinsser agrees, admonishing, “Most adverbs are unnecessary” (p. 69); and “Most adjectives are also unnecessary” (p. 70). But sage advice can mislead. Francis Christensen, in his book “Notes Toward a New Rhetoric,” views the game differently, quoting from John Erskine’s “The Craft of Writing”: “‘When you write, you make a point, not by subtracting as though you sharpened a pencil, but by adding.’ We have all been told that the formula for good writing is the concrete noun and the active verb. Yet Erskine says, ‘What you say is found not in the noun but in what you add to qualify the noun…The noun, the verb, and the main clause serve merely as the base on which meaning will rise…The modifier is the essential part of any sentence’“ (p. 4). 

We may not catch the parts of speech as they fly over our head or roll between our legs, yet they are always visibly in play. From most seats, a fan can’t tell if a pitch, upon delivery, is a fastball, a curve, a slider, a splitter, a cutter, a knuckler, a screwball, or a changeup, not until we see what the batter does with it, and even then we’re often unsure. Yet knowing the pitches and observing how the pitcher-catcher battery mixes them up against the batter is the best way to watch a game. Pitches are like words. There’s hardly time for a sentence from the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand to crossing the plate, but from windup to swing is a complete thought.  

We had the opportunity a couple of years ago to speak with Dave Niehaus, the voice of the Mariners. We wondered how he was able to call each pitch: “Freddy taking his time, now ready, shakes off a sign from Wilson, reads another, gets set, and here’s the pitch – fastball on the outside corner for call strike one.” Or it could have been a slider, or any of the other eight basic pitches of baseball. Niehaus delivered his answer in an anecdote: when he was broadcasting with the Angels, he said, owner Gene Autry came into the box one night after the game. “You called a great game tonight, Dave,” Gene Autry said; “I’m just not sure it was the same game that I saw.” 

Another time we were invited to watch an inning up in the broadcast booth. We sat next to Ron Fairly, LA Dodger first baseman of the 1960’s, who was keeping box score with a pencil, in a thick, oversized scorebook. There was a laptop in the booth, and a stats expert who worked it, feeding Niehaus and his sidekick Rick Rizzs notes and numbers they might fit into their commentary, but Fairly was keeping score the old-fashioned way, one pitch at a time, marking essentially the effects of each pitch. The broadcast booth framed a particular view of the game. The open window framed the field like a camera, directly behind and up from home plate, omitting the fans down the first and third base lines, thus forcing a sharpened focus onto the field of play. The broadcast booth afforded an enhanced view of the field, a very different view from any other seat we’ve occupied in the ballpark. 

We write for an audience, even if imaginary, but if you are going to call a game, you must block out the game the fans are watching, and call your own. Some coaches encourage pitchers to stick to the fastball and curve. Others admonish avoiding screwballs and changeups. Most pitchers specialize in only a few pitches they use repeatedly, mixing the rotation so the ball comes at the batter with surprise, and modifying with location and speed, depending on the age and condition of their arm – fastballs often lose their pizzazz as the arm ages.  

In the 1960s, in Los Angeles, roofed in blue, Dodgers fans often took their transistor radios to games to listen to the play by play by Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett. One learned some of the tricks of the game. A homerun flies quickly out of a ballpark. “Homerun” adequately describes the hit, in the time it takes the ball to clear the fence, yet Vin Scully knew, as Christensen and Erskine did, that writing is “essentially a process of addition” (p. 4). For Vin Scully could be heard on the radio still talking about a long fly ball to deep right center field, Mays going back, way back, to the wall, it’s gone! – the ball having flown over the fence some time ago, the slugging Dodger already rounding second base. So it goes with writing as with baseball. There are tricks built into the skills. But now it’s time to call it quits for the day, quit writing, that is, because there’s a whiffle ball game starting up out on the block, and we don’t want to miss the first cut – it’s opening day!    

The smell of print culture

Believer readers have commented recently on the monthly magazine’s odor. Redolent of what is the question, for we too succumb every month, sticking our nose deep between the pages for a potent snort or two. We find the Believer’s suggested explanation spurious: “…foil stamp on the cover. That’s probably what it was” (Dear the Believer, March/April 08, p. 2). Surely, some Lotus Eater is at work here. 

But we’ve always stuck our nose into books, savoring the ink and pages, a happy habit started no doubt in one of Sister Maryquill’s classes, when we got to work the mimeograph machine, producing those luscious handouts smeared with wet blue ink, the students all smelling the pages up close, blue tipped noses betraying the practice like ashes on the forehead.

But of course the blue ink dried and faded, leaving one with the dull task of completing the worksheet. The Believer pages also seem to lose their odor over time. We conducted an experiment: March 05, slight humus smell still in the pages, though this copy was at the bottom of a stack, so maybe it wasn’t breathing properly; April 06, slightly stronger, faint taste of compost; June/July 07 (the music issue), stronger still, a bedroom in the morning, windows closed; March/April 08 (the film issue), potent, redolent of the mimeograph machine and the pages it produced.

There you have it. The experiment suggests something organic, some herbal ingredient either in the ink or in the pages, which decays over time. The Believer pages are thick and rough, like old coloring book pages, thicker and rougher than glossy magazine pages – some of those, we’ve noticed lately, are tinged with perfume advertisements, an obvious attempt to address reader attrition by simulating the mimeograph effect. The Believer pages are alive. 

Whatever permeates the Believer’s pages, one thing is certain: to our sense, eBooks carry no odor, fair or foul, and that we find distressful; but readers here might smell something funny in this post.

Into the valley of rejection rode the 850

Having read Dana Goodyear’s “The Moneyed Muse” (New Yorker, February 19 & 26, 2007), we were surprised to hear that the Willesden Herald received only 850 entries in this year’s annual short story contest, then again surprised at the outcome, for into the valley of rejection rode the 850.

The follow up on the Willesden Herald site, including finalist judge Zadie Smith’s letter of explanation, is the interesting part of this story. The judges decided there will be no prize this year, all 850 of the entries failing the requisite “make it good.” Zadie says, “…we didn’t receive enough,” after the editors have already described an overdose reading experience. From Goodyear’s article, readers might recall: “At last count, several years ago, Poetry, which prints some three hundred poems a year, had to choose from among ninety thousand submissions.” One wonders how even a fraction of those get read – and how do they select which ones to read?

But Willesden Herald’s total rejection may have been a response informed by a pre-determined argument rather than a reader confronting any actual story. From Zadie’s letter: “Just like everybody, we at The Willesden Herald are concerned about the state of contemporary literature. We are depressed by the cookie-cutter process of contemporary publishing, the lack of truly challenging and original writing, and the small selection of pseudo-literary fictio-tainment that dominates our chain bookstores.” Does that describe the stories they received? We don’t know. And is there ample evidence to support that “everybody” is concerned? The number of those concerned is probably closer to nobody than to everybody.

It’s apparently no fun being a judge: “…by the start of November, all three short-listing judges started having to give up between 12 and 20 hours every week of their time to reading. Eventually, the volunteer that opened the envelopes and did the initial data entry was swamped and at one point, while keeping the entrants’ names secret to all the judges, SM had to help out with tedious data entry by staring at a spreadsheet through the night.” Perhaps a fresh crop of volunteer readers might have read things differently.

“No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions,” Rene Char said, nor read in one, no doubt. While we have been struggling in the current reading crisis to identify a common reader, here is evidence of a common writer. How is it possible that the publication these writers are reading received not a single entry that matched the quality of what they publish, or would like to publish? How can the number of writers be growing while the number of readers is declining? Was the quality of writing really the issue, or is there a warrant in the Herald’s justification, an attempt not to devalue as much as revalue? What does the common reader (in this sentence defined as a reader who is not also a writer or a would be writer) want to read? What if next year they get 90,000 submissions; how will they handle that?

Good is that which suits its purpose. A good story is one that achieves its goals, even if we happen to dislike those goals. We don’t like horror films, but we’ve no doubt there are good ones. We go to Edmund Wilson, speaking of Flaubert and Baudelaire, who “exerted, in dealing with the materials supplied them by their imagination, a rigorous will to refrain; that their work might thus fortify their readers as well as entertain them…” Further, Wilson maintains, “…fine workmanship itself always contains an implicit moral… experimentation is necessary: one must allow a good deal of apparently gratuitous, and even empty or ridiculous work, if one wants to get masterpieces.” And, finally, Wilson: “…they may not be good for anything, but, on the other hand, they may be valuable – one has to wait and see what comes of them, what other writers may get out of them.”  

Perhaps the Herald should have spent the prize money to publish all 850 stories, thereby letting their readers decide. Or we may leave literature and go into social science, where we will find that a preference for a particular story is the result of class privilege, for taste is not a virtue; it is distilled.

Edmund Wilson quotes above taken from “Notes on Babbitt and More,” from Edmund Wilson, A Literary Chronicle: 1920-1950, Doubleday Anchor Books.

Joyce’s agenbite of books and boots

The slowly falling Mr. Dedalus, Stephen’s father, gives his daughter Dilly two pennies: “Get a glass of milk for yourself and a bun or a something. I’ll be home shortly” (p. 239). Dilly’s on her own now her mother’s passed, and needs money for food for herself and her siblings still at home. She knows her father’s habits. “Did you get any money?” (p. 237). But a few pages later Dilly surprises Stephen at an outdoor “slanted bookcart.” Stephen recalls a time Dilly’s face had “…glowed as she crouched feeding the fire with broken boots” (243):

-What have you there? Stephen asked.

-I bought it from the other cart for a penny, Dilly said, laughing nervously.

…-Mind Maggy doesn’t pawn it on you. I suppose all my books are gone.

-Some, Dilly said. We had to.

Earlier at the bookcart Stephen considered, “I might find here one of my pawned schoolprizes” (p. 242).

Of this scene Frank Budgen said, “Stephen has a strong sense of family solidarity…But who would save drowning people must first be a good swimmer” (p. 132), forgiving the resourceful Joyce for abandoning his family for a life of books they would have to burn to keep warm. But here’s Dilly, hungry in frayed clothes and broken boots, willing to spend one of but two pennies on a used book.

One thing’s certain, we won’t keep warm with eBooks. But maybe Budgen’s point was that Stephen was not a good swimmer. (Joyce was afraid of water.) 

Of books and boots, and their life-span, two “leathern vessels,” a term found in OED:

[ME. bote, a. OF. bote (mod.F. botte), corresp. to Pr., Sp., Pg. bota, med.L. botta, bota, of uncertain origin. Identified by Diez, Littré, etc. with F. boute (also, in mod.F., botte) butt, cask, leathern vessel; but ‘the phonology of the two words in OF. shows that they are quite distinct’ (P. Meyer). In med.L. also butta ‘butt’ and botta ‘boot’ are never confounded, though bota is frequent as a by-form of both, which has probably misled etymologists.]