shiny things in messy little piles

Category: writing life (Page 1 of 3)

The Emperor’s New Bird

Noel Reynolds, CC BY 2.0, via Wiki­me­dia Commons

 I love the notion of per­formed spon­tane­ity, in that it gets at the fact that what seems nat­ur­al, or impro­vi­sa­tion­al, is still a prod­uct of deci­sion mak­ing, and still leads to a con­scious­ly made thing—a mechan­i­cal nightin­gale rather than the real bird that hap­pens to fly in the window.”

Diane Seuss inter­view with Jesse Nathan in McSweeney’s

1) The mechan­i­cal bird per­forms. Poets perform—mostly on the page. But there is some­thing about hear­ing the music of the poem out loud that will always bring me more than the writ­ten word on the page.

2) Only the unpaired male nightin­gale sings at night. Though so often in poet­ry it is the female bird who is invoked. A mis­at­tri­bu­tion that con­founds the usu­al (mis)assignment of female voic­es to their male counterparts.

3) Have you ever seen a real nightin­gale? It is a dull brown, mid­dle sized bird whose only out­stand­ing asset is its song. When the males sing at night, it’s a macho thing: call­ing all the girls. “Come fuck me, come fuck me.” In the fairy tale when the ser­vant girl takes the court to see the actu­al nightin­gale they are dis­ap­point­ed to see the dull lit­tle bird. One of the ser­vants opines that sure­ly see­ing all of the won­der­ful, pow­er­ful peo­ple of the court must have fright­ened all the col­or out of the actu­al bird. Because, don’t we all get fright­ened out of our col­ors sometimes?

4) I sing my wild­ness like that lit­tle mechan­i­cal nightin­gale. It is love­ly per­for­mance. But every moment of it is cal­cu­lat­ed with an eye towards safe­ty. A mechan­i­cal nightin­gale will give a per­fect per­for­mance. As long as you don’t ask it to fly.

5) machine (n.) “an appa­ra­tus that works with­out the strength or skill of the work­man.”
Which can’t be said of poet­ry? Or can it? Is poet­ry a machine? If it is, what is it a machine for? Does a machine have to have a pur­pose? Are machines with­out pur­pose art? What does this machine do for me? This machine makes… mean­ing? But does it make sense? How can the machine of poem makes sense? What does it make sense of? Why is this frag­ment all ques­tions? And no answers? Or mean­ing? If there is any mean­ing? I guess.

6) A machine allows you to repli­cate a thing. A screw, a table leg, a bird’s song. But a repli­ca­tion is nev­er a new thing. Not entirely.

7) Bird songs are hard to rep­re­sent in text. Var­i­ous field guides use var­i­ous meth­ods to depict the songs. Some use descrip­tives, some use mnemon­ics, some use a vague­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive spec­tro­grams. The Sib­ley Guides use descrip­tive words like: trill, buzz, upslur, downslur, musi­cal, rich, thin, full, and squeaky. The Audubon web­site likes ono­matopoeia: “soft thwacks,” “coo­ing,” “zip-zabbling,” and “chan­nel­ing car alarms and baby bab­bles” and mnemon­ics: “who cooks for you” and “wichity-witchy-woo.” Though they are increas­ing­ly just putting up audio files and you can lis­ten for your­self with out the inter­me­di­ary of the attempt to sig­ni­fy in text.

8) I won­der about the impos­si­bil­i­ty of spon­tane­ity in a machine. Does this imply an impos­si­bil­i­ty of spon­tane­ity in poet­ry? In art in gen­er­al? If we are mak­ing machines to make mean­ing, or con­vey emo­tion, or state facts even, can we be spon­ta­neous? I don’t think so. We may use arti­fice to make it look spon­ta­neous but it is nev­er past the first draft spon­ta­neous. Is even a first draft spon­ta­neous? We are, from the out­set, arrang­ing the words and their mean­ings in con­scious pat­terns, even at our most free form. We are mechan­ics. Our tools are syn­tax and arrange­ment, our mate­ri­als are words. We build a machine with hope. Though what we hope for is not always clear.

9) The last frag­ment that I meant to write was about the won­ders of the mechan­i­cal, the lack of a soul in the won­der­ful mechan­i­cal, and how easy this makes it to see the whole of the works. I’d only imply the con­verse: how dif­fi­cult it is to under­stand the liv­ing (souled) when so much is hid­den from us. But I was too busy won­der­ing about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a mechan­i­cal bird that sings as well as the real thing.

End Note:
Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­sen wrote a fairy tale called The Nightin­gale (In Dan­ish the less love­ly sound­ing “Nat­ter­galen”) About an emper­or and the song of the nightin­gale… about a real bird and a mechan­i­cal bird.

Wikipedia dry­ly describes the charm­ing sto­ry thus:

The Emper­or of Chi­na learns that one of the most beau­ti­ful things in his empire is the song of the nightin­gale. When he orders the nightin­gale brought to him, a kitchen maid (the only one at court who knows of its where­abouts) leads the court to a near­by for­est, where the nightin­gale agrees to appear at court; it remains as the Emper­or’s favorite. When the Emper­or is giv­en a bejew­eled mechan­i­cal bird he los­es inter­est in the real nightin­gale, who returns to the for­est. The mechan­i­cal bird even­tu­al­ly breaks down; and the Emper­or is tak­en death­ly ill a few years lat­er. The real nightin­gale learns of the Emper­or’s con­di­tion and returns to the palace; where­upon Death is so moved by the nightin­gale’s song that he allows the Emper­or to live.

You can read the whole of the sto­ry with love­ly pic­tures by Edmund Dulac here.

Being Against the Eternal Now

I have been com­ing to Oax­a­ca for 16 years now. I come for weeks or even months at a time, and yet I am so far unable to mas­ter the lan­guage. In spite of all the time I’ve spent going to din­ner, rid­ing in taxis, and attempt­ing to deci­pher the labels in the gal­leries and muse­ums. Despite months of Span­ish lessons at home, I speak like a stunt­ed tod­dler: in mono­syl­la­bles, two words at a time. I am unable to coher­ent­ly express so much as, “I came from Seat­tle yesterday.”

Here I have no tens­es but the present. I can say “I going out now,” but can­not man­age “I arrived on Tues­day,” or, “I went to the Tole­do muse­um this morn­ing,” or, “I would like to ride the hors­es tomorrow”.

In Mex­i­co I have few futures.  I can man­age a sort of “fur­ther tense” using the present tense of ir (to go) and an infini­tive — loose­ly “I am going to” [do this thing]. Voy a scriber mañana. I am going to write tomor­row. Con­tin­ue reading

Nuke and Pave…

… is an old com­put­er term for remov­ing all of the soft­ware from the hard­ware and start­ing over again. Back when we could rm ‑rf we would occa­sion­al­ly find that a sys­tem had got itself into a non-recoverable state and need to be rebuilt from the ground up in order to func­tion again. Or on a hap­pi­er note when a project fin­ished we often wiped the soft­ware off of the hard­ware and repur­posed it for the next project.
While sys­tems have become much more resilient than they used to be, and rm ‑rf is rarely avail­able to the aver­age user, a com­pete wipe down of the bug­gy sys­tem using rm ‑rf’s new­er rel­a­tive, reset to fac­to­ry set­tings, is still the only solu­tion to cer­tain prob­lems. My iPhone got into one of those states recent­ly. Slow to load apps and data for sev­er­al weeks it final­ly reached the point of being unable to load the App Store for updates.
Google has as many solu­tions for these sorts of prob­lems as there are ways of cre­at­ing them. Every­thing from killing the run­ning apps to ful­ly eras­ing the phone’s mem­o­ry and rebuild­ing it from “like new.” It’s a fraught process. There is a fris­son of dread and hope. You will def­i­nite­ly start with the sim­plest least destruc­tive options but there’s always the ques­tion: What if you have to go all the way?
I found and tried a num­ber of folk reme­dies. Kill all the run­ning apps and then restart the phone. Tap any but­ton at the bot­tom of the App Store app 10 times to clear the cache — that worked for about 10 min­utes. Remove all of your net­work set­tings and reboot your WAP — okay so the WAP was lit­tle wedged, etc. In the end none of these worked. The last non destruc­tive option was a full back­up and restore. And easy but lengthy process that could  leave the phone in exact­ly the same bare­ly func­tion­ing state that I had start­ed in. An hour and half lat­er that’s exact­ly what happened.
So there I was — faced with the option of last resort. The nuke and pave. Leav­ing me with a blank phone with­out a sin­gle bit of the per­son­al­i­ty that I’d giv­en it over the last two years. That at once won­der­ful and fright­en­ing prospect of a new start. There is dread. It’s a colos­sal has­sle. You lose every­thing. Every set­ting, every App, every bit of data. Your con­tacts, your text mes­sages, your fit­ness band data, your pho­tos of the dog act­ing idi­ot­ic. All of it. It’s like los­ing your phone only with­out the cost of new hard­ware. A total PITA.
And yet, and yet. It is also an excit­ing prospect. The new, vir­gin ter­rain. All of the mis­cel­la­neous cruft and crap and use­less apps and pass­words for wi-fi points in air­ports you’ll nev­er vis­it again, and oop­sie pic­tures of your feet are gone. You get to start again with a sim­pler, clean­er, less over­whelm­ing device. You will also spend the next week adding back the apps, pass­words, and data that it turns out you were using but had for­got­ten about. You will lose all of your deeply ingrained kinet­ic mem­o­ry, the auto­mat­ic fin­ger press­es and unthink­ing scrolling though the pages to reach the thing that you need.
Still.. new ter­rain. As an adult how often do you get enter new ter­rain for such a small price? Sure you can change jobs, change hous­es, change spous­es, all of which take up a lot more than a lazy Sun­day after­noon babysit­ting a hard­ware reset and a cou­ple of hours of soft­ware updates and restor­ing data and pass­words. And so I did it. Set­tings -> Gen­er­al -> Reset -> Reset All Set­tings and pressed the many pop-up but­tons that con­firmed that I did indeed intend to remake my phone into a pris­tine ver­sion of its now non-functioning self.
We all love the oppor­tu­ni­ty to rein­vent our­selves. Even if it’s only in terms of lit­tle bit of pris­tine elec­tron­ic wilder­ness that we can remake to suit our now two years old­er and wis­er self. New phone wall­pa­per, a clean slate of wi-fi set­tings, and some nifty new apps. — Even if you end up reim­port­ing all of the depress­ing fit­ness band data.

A Ball of String

I think I was a cat for Hal­loween one year. I have a pic­ture of me in a leo­tard and tights with a con­struc­tion paper ears and a tail and my face paint­ed white with black whiskers.  It’s not much of a tail and I remem­ber being a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ed that I did­n’t have a cloth one with wire in it so that I could make it twitch or at least curl it inter­est­ing­ly. I don’t remem­ber any­thing else about that Hal­loween, or that cos­tume. But I do have the picture.

I’m try­ing to work with the notion of fam­i­ly sto­ries in some essays that I am writ­ing. The need for those sto­ries and the vari­abil­i­ty of those sto­ries and how they orga­nize and glue togeth­er fam­i­lies. The prob­lem is that I need exam­ples and at any giv­en moment in time I can’t just call up sto­ries. My mem­o­ry is entire­ly asso­cia­tive. It’s as if my mem­o­ry is a very tan­gled ball of twine — the only way to find my mem­o­ries is to be offered an end of the string made up of some oth­er mem­o­ry or some remark from some­one. Or a picture.

I have a small album of pic­tures that my moth­er gave to me when I got mar­ried. In it are pic­tures of me as a child and a few of me and my sib­lings.  I love those pictures.

Some of those pic­tures of me are from before I mak­ing con­scious mem­o­ries. There are pic­tures of me being held by my grand­par­ents. One of me as a one year-old proud­ly wear­ing my father’s watch. And oh the hair, bright white and all over the place — fright-wig and looks like Ein­stein were fre­quent remarks.

Slow­ly as a I page through the pic­tures some things become clear­er. I remem­ber a house we lived in when I was  4 and my grand­par­en­t’s back yard. There’s the one of my in a tutu and those blue cat eye glass­es with my friend from kinder­garten — whose name was… oh yeah Lin­da! And how I want­ed to be a bal­le­ri­na — but I don’t think I ever took dance lessons. (If I’m wrong my mom will tell me.)

There are pic­tures of me and my sib­lings. One spe­cial one of the five of us just after my youngest broth­er was born. I don’t remem­ber the pic­ture being tak­en but I do remem­ber the warm Sep­tem­ber day that he was born. The neigh­bor was look­ing after us and told us in the mid­dle of the after­noon that we had a broth­er. And remem­ber­ing that after­noon reminds me of the fam­i­ly sto­ry that’s told about my broth­er’s birth. You see, it’s said that my dad and the doc­tor watched the first game of a Pirates double-header while wait­ing for my broth­er to be born. It con­tin­ues that after Joe’s birth with my dad, the doc­tor, and my new baby broth­er watch­ing the sec­ond game. True? Most like­ly not. But it’s been told over and over again and it does explain Joe’s grade-school obses­sion with baseball.

Once I start down that road — grab that bit of string of mem­o­ry I can find anoth­er sto­ry and anoth­er sto­ry and yet anoth­er. Sto­ries about my broth­ers and their odd­ly bal­anced rela­tion­ship (5 years and a good­ly num­ber of pounds sep­a­rat­ed them but they put up a unit­ed front when­ev­er chal­lenged.) Sto­ries about my sis­ters and their pas­sions, one for music, the oth­er for hors­es. All the things that make my fam­i­ly unique­ly my family.

But with­out the first pic­ture I get no where.

So I keep in my stu­dio a small brown, now quite beat­en up, pho­to album. With a hand­ful of pic­tures. That can send me back in time and unrav­el my mem­o­ry knots. Every time I open it I’m grate­ful that my mom made it for me.

I'm smiling!



The Thing about Hallmark

Why is every­body so down on Hall­mark? Aren’t we inar­tic­u­late enough with­out deny­ing us the chance to have some­one help us to speak? Haven’t we all had that moment when we don’t have any words of our own. When the words have been blast­ed right out of us? When all we are left with is a heav­ing heav­i­ness in our guts? No more than an emp­ty space — black, boil­ing in on itself — that can­not sig­ni­fy some accept­able mean­ing?  When there is an absolute require­ment — the need to speak, but no words.

That time when all you have to say is: This thing that has hap­pened — it has torn a hole in my heart and tak­en the words right out of me. I want to show you the blood rush­ing out to pool at my feet. To speak in the red sticky cop­pery taste of sor­row, to give you the torn out piece of my heart and say “eat this — it is my heart’s ache for you.” But no one wants to see the gun-shot hole in your chest. You can­not point to a pool of blood and say “this is for you.” But, you can always send a Hall­mark with its care­ful­ly deco­rous words that say “I have a hole in my heart for you.” with­out mak­ing an unseem­ly dis­play of arte­r­i­al blood.

The thing about Hall­mark is that the reply, the acknowl­edg­ment of the oth­er’s sym­pa­thy, of the wound that they have tak­en in response to your own heart-ache, can be as care­ful­ly rit­u­al­ized as the expres­sion. With Hall­mark you do not have to say “I see the hole in your heart but I can not answer it — the hole in my heart is too big and bleed­ing to quick­ly and it threat­ens to over­come me. And I can­not be held account­able for your sym­pa­thy.” You can sim­ply let Hall­mark say “Thank you for think­ing of me.”

Hall­mark. Because some­times the best you can do is to let some­one else help you say “I have some feel­ings about this. I thought you should know.”

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