Notes Number 5: Smells Like Berfrois Spirit

Nevermind, I’m already 10 minutes late for my appointed volunteer shift at the Portland Convention Center to help out at AWP19. Turns out even 11:30 am too early for this old kid to gig. I hope my unexcused absence doesn’t reflect too poorly on my literary reputaughtshun. But I will use the time though, looking ever closer and deeper into “Berfois: The Book”  and “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book.”

Whenever confronted with conventions, I remember the Salinger story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which begins:

“THERE WERE ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through. She used the time, though. She read an article in a women’s pocket-size magazine, called “Sex Is Fun-or Hell.” She washed her comb and brush. She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse. She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole. When the operator finally rang her room, she was sitting on the window seat and had almost finished putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand.”

Why ninety-seven? The 97th Infantry Division was active in WWII, but Salinger served in the 4th Infantry Division. In any case, today, “the girl in 507” would, in addition to all her other time using activities, be on her cell phone, wouldn’t she? As for the advertising men, they might be attending an Associated Writers and Writing Programs annual convention, such as AWP19, this week being held in Portland. Portland is a good place for bananafish. Maybe something to do with all the rain. In the today Salinger story version, AWP might be an acronym for All Earwickers Post.

But the word “ear” appears only once in “Berfrois: The Book.” Six times in “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book.” One can read too closely. And that’s just whole words, anyway. Backing up a bit, we see “ear” appears frequently as part of other words: years, bear, Radishes, breath, Misrepresentation (in the Berfrois book); Eavesdropping, great, Picaresque, artes, Funeral, Breakfast (in the Queen Mob’s book).

The only use of the whole word “ear” found in “Berfrois the Book” is in the essay by Ed Simon, “Moved the Universe: Notes Toward an Orphic Criticism” (59:72):

“…Erato whispering in Sappho’s ear…” (59).

In his essay, Simon speaks to the mystery of literature. It’s what can’t be quizzed in class. Nor is it:

“I’ve no interest in taste, discernment, or style…” (66).

Simon is talking about the ear, about listening. He’s not asking what is literature, but where does it come from, and how does it get here. How do we hear it, learn it, learn to listen to it, for it. It’s a raw approach. It cuts through a lot of crap:

“What defines the Orphic approach is never necessarily analytical acumen (certainly not that), nor adept close readings, but rather, an ecstatic, enchanted, enraptured sense of the numinous at literature’s core. Orphic criticism is neither method nor approach, but rather attitude and perspective” (71).

For a reader, the attitude might have a bearing on Nabokov’s emphasis on relying on one’s “spine,” the “tingle” that goes up it when the magic kicks in:

“A major writer combines these three – storyteller, teacher, enchanter – but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer…a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic…In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle” (5:6). (Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers,” from “Lectures on Literature,” Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1980).

Simon’s essay is in form a classic argument, and a perfect example of one. Plus, we get a history of literary criticism and enough references to keep us going for some time. The essay bemoans the very academic sustenance that gave it life, but explains why. In essence, theory grows monstrous when it becomes horror to the common reader. Simon’s statement, about which there will be some disagreement, I found very persuasive, intuitive, purposeful, clear and concise yet thorough and clarion in its call to let the sound back into the word.

Justin Erik Halldor Smith‘s “The G.O.E” (101:108 B:TB) is, at least in one sense, also about the ear:

“What I remember most vividly is the great cleavage, in the earliest time, when the moon was torn away from us” (101).

The speaker seems to be an ecological griot, an evolutionary being that “remembers everything,” and attempts to dialog with those who may have forgotten or never knew:

“There is a memory that runs through all of us unbidden, and that can be brought to the surface with a little effort. In this effort, we stop being I and thou, which seems implausible, but I have always felt that coming to see oneself as an I in the first place was the far more remarkable way of apprehending the world, while conjuring our shared memory with all the other Is is by far less remarkable” (101).

Justin’s piece is in form a parable. Why is life so reliant on symbiotic relationships that eat one another? There is a partnership, on Earth, at least, of animal and plant life. At least one form from the animal life world has suppressed and oppressed plant life. Too, within the animal world, there are unmarked distinctions that have grown into borders creating divides that threaten all kinds of partnership. Why does life eat itself so?

We find more “ears” embedded in “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book.” But, before we get too far away from “the girl in 507,” we find, in QM’sT:tB, “advertising.” Only once, both books combined, do we find the word “advertising.” It’s in “Conductor,” by Nate Lippens:

“I drive around my hometown, past the Sons of Norway advertising a Saturday lutefisk lunch, past the strip mall, past the mega-stores and past the Irish sports pub where men who look like fraternal twins line the bar with boilermakers” (187).

How is disgust drawn, when even one’s mother expresses doubt? While pure hate simply ignores, or pretends to. What happens when dislike pierces the skin so often we begin not to like ourselves, and begin to scratch away at an itch the source of which we know comes from where? Do we begin to blame ourselves for being the lightning rod? Nate’s piece seems a personal essay (it could be a story, the narrator a character). The writing is visceral, honest, seemingly true to experience. The writing is clear, drives forward without blinking. The essay contains the kind of writing you feel in your spine.

We interrupt this post for a PSA (Public Service Announcement): I’ve learned that I am being given the opportunity of redeeming myself from today’s (now, as I continue these notes, yesterday’s) unexcused absence. Either tomorrow or Friday, This afternoon, I should be helping out at the Berfrois table at AWP19 for a spell. I’ll be wearing my ears and my advertising cap. If your there, the table ID is T11094. We might talk about how I’ve no doubt misread Simon and Smith, Lippens, and now Pickens?.

Meantime, in the Queen Mob’s book, we find Robyn Maree Pickens using the word “ear” in “The skeleton of a dog who is still alive” (47:57).

“She has been trained to fix her gaze on the clients’ hairlines or ear tips” (48).

The story moves in a form of dream language, which is to say surreal, both clear and unclear at once. Yet,

“Her dreams are full of bounding for terriers. They are either benign guides or soporific constellations that suffocate her eyes. They must never talk about dreams at the institute. She registers the cessation of oscillating air on her head and leaves the circle” (51).

Perhaps the secret to reading all dreams is simply this:

“All references are lost. Their lives are so short. They glisten. They hum” (57).

The Pickens story also is the kind that you feel in your spine.

This is the fifth in a series with notes on AWP19 and the concurrent publication of the Berfrois and QM’sT books. I’m reading through the Berfrois anthologies this week and commenting on the writing and the conference as the week wears on.

20190327_162032
Spring in Portland for AWP19

Born to Read

Born to read. How boring is that? You could have been:

Born to Be Wild
Born to Be Bad
Born to Lose
Born in a Trunk
Born Again
Born Before the Wind
Born to Run

Rock and roll is the universal elixir the alchemists sought. Most US kids know the formula, share autobiographical characteristics, the cultural DNA of the mid twentieth century: the disappointed father who in the economic growth following World War II can’t seem to turn anything into gold; his solitude, his drinking, his passive or active aggressive tendencies; his criticism of life in general, of his home and family in particular; his anger, controlled or not, his anger; his hatred of the jobs and loans and duns they’re able to squeak by with. His depressions. His relationship with his company store. The sixteen tons he loads at work, and the sixteen tons he brings home every day. His wife, your mother, if they stay together, and if they don’t. His loner kid who wants a guitar. The only sports the kid is into are surfing or the pool hall or guitar. The chaos of alienation, isolation, and depression stirs the dull dust of discontent.

Many of the working class guys I grew up with could tell this story, have told this story, do tell this story. Up to the point where they don’t turn into gold. Then the story breaks, and they’re forced to contend with a present silence. Where did the existential choice to turn to rock and roll fail them? Bruce Springsteen was born to rock and roll. His autobiography, “Born to Run” ( 2016), tells the story most guys could tell, until, of course, he turns to gold. But whether we turned to gold, silver, bronze, or lead, the story will sound familiar to those born around 1950, in the heart of rock and roll, in a US small town.

Small towns can be deceiving. Freehold, New Jersey, for example, is only a couple of hours drive to Brooklyn. What defines a small town though isn’t necessarily its proximity to the big city, but the local high school, where family values are tested in a melting pot and loners come of age, and the local churches, which, while professing belief in the same big bang book, remain at odds over how to read it. A local factory or refinery will help define a small town, or a mill, or a nearby ocean beach. A rail or main street might separate two sides of the town, and the one high school maintains the same resulting socioeconomic distinctions. The promise of high school is the get out of Dodge free card. But then there’s a draft, and the cycle repeats.

The voice of “Born to Run” seems to have been edited the way a song might be mixed and remixed, filtered and sifted, until it’s as close to the pure gold style of a bestseller it’s gonna get. It’s clear and articulate, unfettered by literary or personal idiosyncrasies, professionally orchestrated and well organized. Which is to say, it sounds written, not spoken, something seemingly at odds with the roots of rock and roll. But the book itself is not rock and roll, nor was it intended to be. It’s about a working man who as a kid makes an existential decision to turn himself into a musician, a songwriter, an artist. And then turn the musician into gold. And then to sum it all up, to talk about the alchemy of his life.

I especially liked the way the changing relationship with his father unfolds in non-contiguous chapters as Bruce and his father age, learn, change, yet remain the same, yet change again. Just so, the book balances a lot of balls in the air simultaneously, moving in turns from family to songs to concerts to the business of popular music and back to family again. Readers won’t doubt the veracity of the story, no matter how exaggerated or played down its various parts might be, for they will have lived much of it themselves.

But rock and roll is a circus, and the circus can’t stay in any one small town. It must move on. And when it leaves town, it’ll take one or two loners with it, every time. The circus is a road show, a tour. And the circus is always looking for a new act, something to refresh its atmosphere and surprise its audiences. A new song. The same song, but a new song. Or, a new song that creates a similar feeling the old song made. That’s part of the alchemy. Does it really need all the spectacle? How big does the circus need to get? How many rings before you lose track of the center. What happens when the quintessential, archetypal circus outgrows the small town?

Springsteen seems a kid who runs not for the sake of running, but because he can’t keep still. His book is not tabloid. It’s respectful, aims for honesty and transparency while steering clear of details that might only smear the message in further misunderstandings or too quickly satisfy the reader who comes on with preconceived notions and unquestioned assumptions. Springsteen admits to the frailties and insecurities that plague most of us, the depressions and anxieties that drop by out of nowhere to say their hellos and pay their respects every now and then, and the doubts about what we might be doing or how we are doing it at any given moment, including in the spotlight. If he sounds egotistical, narcissistic, self-centered, lonely, at times, it’s because he is, which he freely admits and tries to explain, but he’s also funny and full of fun, balanced, humble when he knows he needs to be. He seeks help when he realizes he can’t go it alone, or his understanding of what’s happening to him is incomplete. He’s critical of things he loves, the people and places and circumstances that help make him who he is; which is to say, he’s not cynical. He’s realistic. His book provides lesson after lesson of songwriting, concert making, of being a son and husband and father and businessman and citizen – lessons about working, about blue collar commitment to tools, about respect for others as well as how to build your own stage.

There’s a scene late in the book where Springsteen takes his then teenage son to see a new, young band the kid’s been following. Backstage after the show, the bass player shows father and son a tattoo he has of the father on his arm. His son is gobsmacked, but later finds it funny, while Bruce realizes the tattoo says much more about the bass player than it does about him. That’s not him in the tattoo; it’s an image. An image of what? For that, you’ll have to read “Born to Run.”

Entertainment is circus. Circus is defined by its boundaries, the circle, the entrance, enchantment in a spotlight (a smaller circle), the victorious exit amid applause. Though real life is also circular, boundaries are more fluid, and spectators get mixed up with the clowns and acrobats and the freaks. What goes around might come around, or not, might come around and slap you upside the head or whiff on by. Performers come and go, tents get moved, the circus goes on. Send in the clowns.

“Born to Run” is about identity, finding one’s own, wanting it to be authentic and hoping to stay true to it, and what it takes over time to fuel that identity, its costs, and what it takes to forge an identity in a cold deck stacked against it. But you can’t just choose any identity. The existential question that involves defining the meaning of your own life can’t ignore whatever privileges or handicaps you are born into, regardless of how relatively light or heavy those appear to be. And one’s identity changes over the years. People change, even if the proximate cause of change is a world that won’t stay still. Being born to run turns out to be an advantage in a society that moves about like a circus. And the work is never over, the existential self-identity crisis. It’s a life long work. And one struggles against the identities others may try to insist upon, impose, brand: failure and loser; hero and savior; outcast and outlier; man of the hour or woman of the year; runner up or has been; employee of the month or slacker.

But to say one is born to anything, however seemingly noble or rotten, is to concede, to acquiesce to chance, to renounce the birthright of being human, which is to choose. It’s not enough to be born once. One must be born again. But it’s not enough to be born again once, either. One must be born again every day. That’s the cycle. Every day there is a choice to be made. It’s no good saying, as some do, simply, I am what I am. One is born to nothing. Birth is hard work. But it’s the only thing we really have to do, to give birth to ourselves. Born to choose.

Diary: How to Improve the Text (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)

textsDiary: How to

Improve the Text (You Will

Only Make Matters Worse)

 

John Cage titled his diary, “Diary: How to

Improve the World (You Will

Only Make Matters Worse)” (1965),

suggesting a zen koan where every move

in one direction is a move in another direction.

Cage was not too into the game of chess,

that was Nabokov. Were they neither control

freaks? One looked down on the ground

for mushrooms, the other up in the air for butterflies.

 

Listen to the music mushrooms make:

shiitake, for example.

 

“Nothing to be done,” Beckett said, and he said

it more than once: “Nothing to be done.”

Again and again, recycling the words,

 

imagining a future without retail,

which entailed imagination, the tale

of dead malls, hollowed out shells,

shelter for the homeless.

 

(artificial intelligence:

“all watched over by machines

of amazing grace,” Richard Brautigan said.)

 

What if anything is artificial? Artifice, father, creator:

The true ecologist loves garbage, Slavoj Zizek said,

and, we must become more artificial,

if we are to comprehend the universe,

a grasping together. GASP! (Taylor, Examined Life).

 

Every thing is recyclable, even no thing (as Beckett showed),

all things crawling with recycling bugs chewing,

the textual droppings of these bugs crawling across the page

two streams of ants, one going, the other coming:

ant ant ant ant ant ant ant ant ant ant ant

tna tna tna tna tna tna tna tna tna tna tna.

The ants smell textual clues.

 

The job of being

human

altruism and community, signage,

the shape of mouths, lip tools,

tongue, teeth, mouth to ear, surplus

age, a pantry of letters, a kitchen of words

a living room of text, a bed of books,

a shelter of stories.

 

It probably never was the best of times

and self-pity to call any time the worst of times.

The people bored march on nothing.

Blog is dead, someone said, sweeping up,

blogging, only dead if you thought

that; otherwise, it was still

“lots of fun for everyone!”

 

Retail is dead, the tinker said,

stirring her pots and pans;

on the other side of the street,

a drone drops a text.

 

In “For

The Pleasure

of the Text…,” Jeremy Fernando explains how

text comes into being when reading, comes and goes, his book

full of marginalia mushrooms, the writer a saprophyte,

pages flipping to and fro like butterflies, and as hard to find,

the text always disappearing, pages not mumbered [sic],

but we know where to look

for mushrooms and the colors butterflies prefer.

 

When speaking of the universe, keep in mind nothing is factual; everything is argument – claim and rebuttal, recycling. When speaking of the text, keep in mind everything potentially purposeful, so yes, the most effective writer knows not what will be read, can’t be sure of what’s being written. That is one pleasure of the text, the not knowing, uncertainty, ambiguity – the taking and eating of a strange mushroom, an invasion, a landing, of alien butterflies. Beckett said we can’t listen to a conversation for more than five minutes without noting inherent chaos. Yet some writers abhor ambiguity and seem to think they write with clarity. What is clear is that nothing is clear, in spite of grammar.

 

Understanding the text, or attempts to understand one’s own comprehension of the text, are subservient

to experiencing the text. One can only begin to experience the text by giving in to it, which is to say,

consuming it, mouthing the words, eating the text, licking the letters, smelling the ink’s decay.

The text is a meal which like the mushroom can be distasteful, cause belches or gas, even be poisonous.

One might prepare for a heartburn of the text, but that heartburn is part of experiencing the text. The

metaphor grows stale, corny. Halt. Stop. Let us retire for a break in the text to some hops.

The text plays itself out.

text
g UL p
ale

The reader returns to the text, changed, reader and text, both changed, a bit tipsy, textual vibrations: screen shots of textual cuts, rips, woven riffs, quotes like on a guitar, but cited for the newly planted who need authority to get established, but why would one want authority over/under/sideways/down another? textual authority to pass testual [sic] authority, getting testy this, this authority, King Ibid on his throne in the kingdom of Where Did You Get This Weave? There can be no misreading, only the experience of reading: vicarious. Author as vicar, vice advice, a writing vise.

a grammar of the other

another

other

mother

moth (lex) toward the light

mouth (law) toward the dark

declension

every text an attempt to improve

which worsens

writing as self-medicating

for which there is no cure

curator

mother

a text that cures

Watt Ales

 

what is the meaning of an unpaginated (upainted) text?

citations as reproductions, pics of texts

folder paper, where the lines are the bedrock

of grammar, the grammar of the text –

the reader creates the ungrammatical (including typos)

as the police create crime (cite N+1)

calls into question any misreading

“justesse of any sentence” (JF, PT)

ripping through the text, pulling quotes out

disrupting the horizons of folder paper lines

horizontal disappearings

a following silence until a new text swells

the crowd disperses, the text shelved.

 

In the middle of the text we find a pic

of “Anatomie” (Ibid: 180), and this

quoted:

“To write the body,
Neither the skin, nor the muscles, nor the bones,
nor the nerves, but the rest: an awkward, fibrous,
shaggy, raveled thing, a clown’s coat”

so we get at once
Love’s Body (Norman O. Brown)
Beckett’s clown
& Bob Dylan.

 

Next comes the pun: body > corpus

and “authenticity” – the authority

of the corpse, already with us,

and the illuminated manuscript,

backlit screen.

 

And don’t miss the three asterisks.

 

A typo it appears? (Elfriede Jelinekl) in the text, part of the text; typos are like black holes. They suck in the light. Some readers delight in seeing them (schadenfreude), but perhaps the typo corrects one’s vision. Certainly they test it. Typos are purposeful. Theory of accidents.

 

Musical interlude, listen, an invisible text. Music as language must be translated. “Happy New Ears,” Cage said.

 

…now to dreaming:

the experience of reading. experience is not

necessarily evil, a song of experience is not

a song of evil – nor is a song of innocence

necessarily a song of good. depends on text.

 

No more links, likes, or comments;

and if you don’t like this post at the Toads,

take it up with JF’s RB, or RB’s JF.

 

The bits about death, or Death? One prefers breath, or Breath! One might here sight [sic] Walt Whitman or Charles Olson, but there follows a sketch (portrait), not traced, there are rules, after all – yes, but whose rules?

The rules of the text:

JF and RB by JL

~~~

the text tails off

them’s that’s got it

Vonnegut footnote

inventions (externalizations)… to be continued, continue to be

References

Fernando, Jeremy. (2015). For The Pleasure of the Text… {etc.}

references

 

Alma Lolloon – Work in Progress

Continuing from last Saturday’s installment, from chapter one of my work in progress titled “Alma Lolloon,” the first chapter titled “Casting On.” The book is finished, but I’m still proofing and editing. I hope to have it out in December. Meantime, I plan to continue putting up excerpts here on Saturdays:

from chapter one of the novel “Alma Lolloon”:

My first marriage was annulled within a couple of months. I never saw Mary or Gabriel again. We all signed complex legal documents sealing the moment. My second marriage was to a draftee. Joe wasn’t so much love or even a decision or a choice. But he adored Freddy and was a fun guy who made Freddy and me laugh and when we were together my bad thoughts vanished. Joe was a high school dropout, but he had a car, a 1953 Chevy, two toned, cream over turquoise blue. Joe walked off to boot camp, marched home and we married, and off he flew to Vietnam where he was fried up in napalm, his squad a straw basket of squids. Leaving me pregnant with Sally and a fragment of a family. My third husband drowned in a fishing accident, the sun that hot August day scalding, not a single blade of shade, the sand boiling, not a breath of breeze, and the rocks seething with seaweed and foam, Murphy’s body trapped in the eddies below the cliff, finally coming to rest atop a barnacled rock perch, the waves running on and on the tide coming in they couldn’t reach him and the water lifted him up and floated his body flotsam out to sea. My fourth husband took his own life. How could so many neurotic demons occupy one man’s mind? His head was an ant farm, ants like tiny cars digging tunnels through the clay. Wags was possessed by his corporate gig and rig and regalia and risk. He stuck a hose in the tail pipe in the garage, the other end through a wind wing, the car windows and doors all shut up, and Wags turned fifty shades of bluefish-purple. My fifth husband was shot and killed by a private eye, who mistook him for a wise guy at a poker game, shot him coming out of an outhouse between hands. Well, Jack was a bit of a joker, but not the kind the dick was thinking. Jack was a wild card.

Yes, and I told the knitting ladies I am writing a book, and they laughed. Rufa called to ask why I missed Saturday knitting group three weeks in a row and did I need a noise session. I told her I was writing a book. I went down to Lards Coffee to sit with them again, and they asked what I was up to, and I told them I was writing a book, and they all laughed. Why did they laugh? I’m not sure. Maybe they think I don’t have a story or a voice to tell it with. Or maybe they think no one reads books anymore, at least not one written by an old woman who has never traveled much, never finished college, never finished a marriage, a career part time waitress. But I’ve read a few books over the years, some over and over, the ones I really like.

But just because you can climb into a dress and maybe even look good in it, doesn’t mean you have any idea how to cut and sew a pattern together, Hattie said.

Hattie’s in a book club, Rufa said, so she reads books, presumably. I don’t recall her ever talking much in knitting group about the books her club reads. Do you think the rest of us can’t read, then, Hattie?

Who’s to say who should talk and who should keep quiet? Who should try their hand at a book or grow flowers, swing a bat, or go after the dogs and beer? Curly said.

Why are you writing this book? Hattie said. Do you not realize how difficult it is to publish anything these days? There’s a reading crisis in this country, newspapers disappearing, book shops closing up, kids born with a cell phone stitched into their palm, though there’s still a chance of some success with a children’s book, they say. So what are you writing, Alma, your memoir with all these husbands of yours? But I still don’t understand why. What do you get out of writing? Isn’t writing rather boring, actually, sitting, sitting, sitting? Oh, shit, I dropped a stitch. I never imagined you one with the imagination for it, anyway. So what is it? Memoir? Or some science fiction horror fantasy about these five husbands you’ve been through? And at that they all had another good laugh.

But why don’t you read it to us, Rufa said, on the installment plan? Saturday mornings with Alma.

Hattie laughed barkedly at that. Annie and Curly didn’t seem to get it.

Notes on Types of Poetry

  1. You look at something you believe should be familiar but see something else, something unexpected. A moment of confusion, you are given a start, seeing something new or strange, out of place or off kilter, in place of what usually passes practically unnoticed. Some like that feeling; others do not. But the feeling, whatever it is, passes. You dismiss the experience as a kind of déjà vu as what you expected to see comes into focus and the other vision, the mirage, the mistake, disappears.

 

  1. That night, you dream of a chess game, even though you don’t play chess. The chess pieces are friends, neighbors, and relatives. The Queen is a woman who walks by your house daily but never says hi. The King is the friendly dog from across the street, always happy to see you. The Knights are kids riding bicycles. The Castles are bell towers full of birds over empty churches. The Pawns are corporate employees you once supervised, riding a desk all day in a building of sealed windows. In those days, you used to dream of getting up from your desk and throwing open a window, a breeze of fresh air blowing all the papers off the desks, creating a ruckus. You are called down to the Personnel Department and summarily fired.

 

  1. You learn a new word, eggcorn. Slips of both the tongue and ears. You make a list of words you frequently misspell, fold the list, and put it into your Moleskin pocket notebook. You save the Moleskin pages for poems that never come. A week later, the Moleskin still empty, you take out your list of frequently misspelled words and throw it away. You make a new list of words you often mishear or mispronounce. You think of getting a dog and naming her faux pas.

 

  1. The plumber arrives to fix the pipe that froze in last winter’s silver thaw. Something about him smells familiar. It’s a stale beer odor. It’s late afternoon, a hot summer day, and he must have been out at lunch drinking beer, perhaps in the lot of food carts located down by the creek at the bottom of the neighborhood. You look into the back of his van. An old blue and white striped mattress lines the floor. The sidewalls are cubbyholes full of tools and plumbing parts.

 

  1. The power has gone out again, another rolling summer blackout. You light a candle. The phone and Internet are also out. You think absurdly of walking down to the corner to use the pay phone – the pay phone was taken out years ago. The evening is dark and quiet and peaceful, and you decide this is your favorite kind of poetry, the kind that creates a still clearness, and the stars are like rocks on the floor of a shallow, smooth running stream that ebbs and flows with the salt water tides. Suddenly the power comes back on, the fan spins, the radio blaring, the streetlight flooding through the open front window. A door slams. A car starts up. The lights flicker indecisively. Blackouts are only rarely epical.

 

  1. A young woman knocks at the door, a canvasser. Lonely for someone to talk to, you invite her inside. You make tea. Her skin is like parchment, full of colorful tattoos, pictures and words. And she has piercings, one in her upper lip, another in her ear, and a tiny diamond on the side of her nose. Her eyebrows are painted black shellac. She comes quickly to the purpose of her mission: she is selling low cost cremation plans. If you buy now, pre-ordering, before you die, you save lots. She’s already been able to help several of your neighbors. Your block is a gold mine of old people.

 

  1. You’ve the kids for the day, to babysit, day care. You get out large, thick sheets of brightly painted paper. Everyone takes a pair of scissors and cuts alphabet letters out of the sheets. You string the letters together with clear fish line and hang them from the ceiling with thumb tacks, creating slow moving mobiles that say different things depending on the breeze coming through the open windows. Everyone lies on the floor with pillows and blankets, watching the letters turn this way and that, reading aloud new words that appear.

 

Minefoolnest & Other Misfits

I’m not a spelling bee. I think the reason I’m not a tiptop speller (well, apart from maybe the more obvious reason) has to do with sound and pronunciation, where sound is what we hear, and pronunciation is how we repeat what we think we heard.

I remember President Bush bedeviled for misspelling tomato, or maybe it was potato. I remember he was in Florida. Why do I recall he was in Florida, at a grammar school, but I’m not sure of the mot juste he abused? That’s probably a misuse of mot juste; I don’t care – I like the way the ooze comes together in juste abuse. Is misspelling word abuse? In any case, and while I was not and am not a G. W. Bush fan (including his paintings, which I did not like not because they were poorly drawn – in fact, they were quite modern – but because they were so narcissistic, selfie obsessed. At the same time, they gave me pause to think about form and content, particularly the one where he was taking a bath – or was it a shower? – because I’ve always been confused by the form and content business: form, apparently, man in tub; content might have been improved with a plumber at work fixing the toilet while the implacable Bush continues his bath), the news story of Bush’s misspelling boo-boo (to wit: tomatoe or potatoe) I found unworthy of sarcasm or cynicism, and I did not join the spelling bee buzz of hecklers making fun of him.
(see correction note below.)

For one thing, I don’t hear the second t in tomato, and if I were going to misspell it, I would probably write tomadoe. Probably that’s yet another reason why I’ll never be a POTUS. Bush’s misspelling was perfect because it’s the same misspelling millions of Americans make every day (or would make, if they were asked to spell tomato), so there was instant populist empathy for him, and it was a chance for the populists to go fsst to the academic snob spelling bees. The academic stings but once. There’s a good reason I hear a d in tomato: /təˈmādō/ – that’s how it’s pronounced. On the other hand (or ear), I do not hear a d in potato, even though potato, like tomato, is pronounced with one: /pəˈtādō/.

You might be thinking I can’t spell because I can’t pronounce, but you’d be a step short if you didn’t acknowledge I can’t pronounce because I don’t hear the same sounds you do. On my own, left to my own devices, I’m in fact a perfect spelling bee. There will always be those who rush to correct (jab, jab, jab, as Susan says) or who think to be a spelling bee is to be a smart bee, when it simply means to be a drone. Like the artist whose painting is as accurate as a photograph but unimaginative, the spelling bee is productive but hackneyed.

Words in all their dress and display should surprise us – startle, chortle, spark the double take.

Spell check, by the way, while helpful, is not a solution. You don’t learn to spell using spell check. In fact, spell check often makes matters worse. Did you mean spell-check? Did you mean spellcheck? Some will argue that’s not a spelling issue. And (underline the right word following) they’re there their probably right. Which is why I’ve been working on mindfulness. Perhaps I meant spill chick, or spoil choke, but chuck it all, anyway. I know how to spell, believe it or not, delete, though I take no delight in it.

I’ve developed Minefoolnest © as a self-improvement program designed to improve both your spelling and your overall attention to text. It’s a program for language misfits, those who, like me, hear words in sounds and sounds in words, often, not the same words and sounds others hear.

Correction: Reader John Dockus (see comments below) has identified Vice President Dan Quayle as the miscreant misspeller of potato, and not Bush, not Florida, and not tomato. Would that there were a fact-checker as well as a spell-checker. Leave it to readers to do both for you, and this is what you get! Thanks, John. The Toads blog regrets the error.

 

Deconstruction & Design

Scamble and Cramble Cover DesignIn the process of deconstruction we discover new ideas. We need not start with a design in hand. We don’t necessarily need a plan. Unless, of course, there is some destination we are particularly interested in, we need to get to. If that’s the case, we’ll usually find ourselves on the wrong path, wrong way on a one way street, people barking directions at us, flipping us off. But if we begin with deconstructing that destination, we often find we discover interesting things along the route we end up taking we would have otherwise missed. There will be constraints. Fences and gates. Do Not Enter signs. No Solicitors. Beware the Dangerous Critic!

At the same time, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for directions, listen to our critics, gather advice, ask for consent, patience, forgiveness of our trespasses. That the severe critic may be lurking behind the next corner, hiding in a recessed alcove doorway, spitting sunflower seed shells from an open second story window, pulling us over to ask for license and registration – that the severe critic lurks in the shadows of our path is a good thing. The critic keeps us awake when we might otherwise fall asleep, and reminds us of our responsibilities to audience, sense, time, and place, direction, design, and deconstructions.

Coming Soon!

Common keyboard signs and punctuation marks become characters in this experimental children’s book for readers of all ages. Scamble and Cramble are two cats observing, interpreting, and commenting on daily events. Other animals come and go, too, changing with text and form and story. “Scamble and Cramble” may work best for independent middle grade readers. Younger children may enjoy perusing the book with an older guide. The book’s Concrete Poetry techniques use standard keyboard symbols and readily accessible font types and sizes. Readers may be encouraged to explore more the world of concrete poetry.

  • Paperback: 108 pages
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (June 24, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1533501084
  • ISBN-13: 978-1533501080
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.3 x 8 inches

Scamble and Cramble
Two Hep Cats
and Other Tall Tales

Things to Do in the Twenty-First Century

CapitalI had thought Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” would be one of those books I would continue to read about but would probably not read first-hand. At 685 pages, its great strength data, its cost new $39.95 (speaking of wealth and distribution), the French economist’s thick tome was not on my list of books to keep an eye out for, let alone add to one of the several stacks of books to read already piled about the house. Piketty’s book is a stack of its own.

In an Isaac Chotiner interview with Piketty at the New Republic , Piketty himself speaks to to the difficulty of reading such books:

IC: Can you talk a little bit about the effect of Marx on your thinking and how you came to start reading him?

TP: Marx?

IC: Yeah.

TP: I never managed really to read it. I mean I don’t know if you’ve tried to read it. Have you tried?

IC: Some of his essays, but not the economics work.

TP:The Communist Manifesto of 1848 is a short and strong piece. Das Kapital, I think, is very difficult to read and for me it was not very influential.

IC: Because your book, obviously with the title, it seemed like you were tipping your hat to him in some ways.

TP: No not at all, not at all! The big difference is that my book is a book about the history of capital. In the books of Marx there’s no data.

But I was wrong. First, fortune brought “Capital” my way. I was walking down to a distant mailbox (like newspapers disappearing, so too are the neighborhood mailboxes). On my way, I looked into our local library box. Only about five or six books. The Believer magazines I’d dropped off the other night were gone. But there at the end of the top shelf in the library box was Piketty’s “Capital.” I picked it up. Looked unread, brand new. Weighed about five pounds. Would it still be there in the box when I got back from dropping off my mail? I glanced through it. Couldn’t take that chance. Not with this kind of fortune. So I walked away with it, feeling a bit guilty though because I knew I might not actually read it, those stacks of unread books about the house already weighing upon me like a seven course meal when you’re not really all that hungry to begin with.

But I was wrong. Second, the book is not all that hard a read. While it probably won’t make anyone’s top ten common reader list, Piketty’s book is clearly written, concise, with well-wrought sentences, and full of remarkable insights and surprises. Consider this paragraph, the subject of which (experiential, anecdotal, or empirical data) revitalizes the current humanities in crisis folderol. Piketty says,

Intellectual and political debate about the distribution of wealth has long been based on an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact.

To be sure, it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of the intuitive knowledge that everyone acquires about contemporary wealth and income levels, even in the absence of any theoretical framework or statistical analysis. Film and literature, nineteenth-century novels especially, are full of detailed information about the relative wealth and living standards of different social groups, and especially about the deep structure of inequality, the way it is justified, and its impact on individual lives. Indeed, the novels of Jane Austen and Honore de Balzac paint striking portraits of the distribution of wealth in Britain and France between 1790 and 1830. Both novelists were intimately acquainted with the hierarchy of wealth in their respective societies. They grasped the hidden contours of wealth and its inevitable implications for the lives of men and women, including their marital strategies and personal hopes and disappointments. These and other novelists depicted the effects of inequality with a verisimilitude and evocative power that no statistical or theoretical analysis can match.

Indeed, the distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers. It is of interest to everyone, and that is a good thing (p. 2, Introduction, A Debate without Data?).

And we learn on page 24 of Piketty’s book (Figure I.I) that income inequality in the United States (1919-2010) was at its lowest between the years 1950 to 1980. From 1980 to today, income inequality in the US has grown steadily, and is now higher than it was during the Great Depression years. Those 30 years of comparative stability (1950-1980) allowed for a sharing of accumulation of capital and knowledge unprecedented and not seen since. The US working class achieved a remarkable degree of middle class provisions, its children went to college in unprecedented numbers, without incurring today’s debt for education, but today nearing or in retirement may be returning to its roots.

 Today’s library box held only three books, none of which I picked up: “A Nun on the Bus”; “Jesus for President”; and “Bernie Sanders: an Outsider in the White House.”