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Archive for September, 2013

Cycles of Confusion

with 4 comments

After considering the whole situation from every angle I could think of, I decided it was about time to take a couple of days off.

This does not make me very happy. There is a deadline involved here, and it’s getting very, very close. 

But writing huge swaths of stuff and tossing it at the end of the day, or the week, isn’t getting me very much farther along, either. 

So, this morning, instead of charging in to do my customary Good Day’s Work (or even a bad one), I put on Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata and futzed around a little.

For those of you who don’t know, there are two things in the world called “The Kreutzer Sonata.”

One of them is the Beethoven piece I listened to this morning. The other is the short story Tolstoy named after the Beethoven piece.

The Tolstoy is one of the most cynical, slimiest, mysoginist things I’ve ever read.

Or I think it is.

I’ve only read it once.  I picked it up because I liked the Beethoven, and I was so repelled by it, I never picked it up again. 

I feel more than a little guilty about this.  I will admit that Tolstoy really, really, really isn’t my kind of writer, and I’ve never been able to force myself through War and Peace.

With Russian writers, I invariably prefer Dostoyevski.  And when I tell people this–especially people whose first language is Russian–they invariably tell me I’m wrong.

There may be something that is not coming across in the translations.   I keep telling myself that I’m going to go back and give it another try, just to see if I can see what the fuss about Tolstoy is about, but I can never quite manage to make myself do it.

At any rate, I figure a day or two off won’t kill my schedule, and I like the Beethoven.

To answer a question from yesterday, though, yes, this book has to be a Gregor. 

It has to be because it was contracted for nearly two years ago, and if I turned in something else my publisher wouldn’t just be miffed, he’d be well within his rights to sue me.

In this case, however, it would have to be a Gregor no matter what, because it takes place on Cavanaugh Street and in Philadelphia and it concerns the people on Cavanaugh Street as much as it does anybody else.

It’s been over a decade since I did a Gregor that actually concentrated on Gregor, and I think it’s just about due.

Still–day off.

And one of the nice things about days off is that I have a chance to pay attention to the news, and I have been paying attention today.

The big news is about Syria, and what we will or will not do about Syria. 

JD sent me a delightful link to an op ed piece by Maureen Dowd in the NYTimes pretty much blaming the entire Syria mess (or the mess of our possible involvement in it) on Bush.

But that’s Maureen Dowd and the NY Times and it’s hard to know what else you could expect.

What I found a lot more interesting was the story of a lawsuit that’s been going on over the last few weeks in New York City, in which a woman named Brandi Anderson sued an employment agency called STRIVE and one of its managers, Ron Carmona, after Carmona delivered a 4-minute-long rant about her alledged inappropriate behavior that used the n-word several times.

This wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy. Somebody screaming at a black client using the n-word is something we could see a lawsuit resulting from without needing to go into a discussion of whether somebody is being oversensitive.

What makes this case interesting is that virtually everybody involved in it–including Brandi Anderson’s lawyer, Carmona, and the staff of STRIVE–is black, and the defense essentially amounted to “it’s okay when black people use the n-word, that’s our culture.”

Anyway, you can go here


and see a fairly good summary of what happened.

Because what happened was that the jury rejected the idea that using the n-word is okay when black people use it, or that it’s ever nondiscriminatory, or that it ever means anything but an insult.

And that’s interesting on a number of levels because:

1) Carmona’s explanation of the way in which the n-word is used in African American communities is, in fact, true.

It is a continual problem in mixed race classrooms during the first semester or so of college, especially if the mixed race classrooms are very mixed. 

And it’s especially, especially true of the African American students are the products of inner city schools where “racial diversity” is practically nonexistent.

It can require quite a bit of work to get across the idea that no, you really can’t use that word in college even if you’re talking about yourself.

I’ve often toyed with the idea of bringing in Richard Pryor’s bit about why he gave up using the n word and why he thinks other black people should give up using it, too.

But the fact remains that it is a word commonly used in black communities, where it is not always–or even usually–an insult.  And the fact remains that it has been so used in those communities for a couple of centuries.

This in no way excuses Mr. Carmona’s behavior, which from reports seems to have been abusive in more ways than just by use of the n-word,

But it does highlight an issue that isn’t usually examined, and the verdict highlights it even more.

2) Because, in rejecting Carmona’s contention that the n word can be used as other than an insult, ever, the jury was essentially saying: we don’t care what you’re culture is, the norm is otherwise, and you have to follow it.

I think the term for this, in circles more progressive than the ones I inhabit, is “cultural imperialism.”

Let’s face it.  I am not now, nor have I ever been, a cultural or moral relativist.

I do think that there are norms of behavior that should be culture-wide, even world-wide.

I think, for instance–just to side reference the book I’m reading–that a culture in which schoolgirls burn to death because they are “improperly” dressed to appear in public and therefore must not be allowed to evacuate a burning building is both morally and culturally inferior to the one I inhabit.

Inferior to. Not just different from.

I also think that the n-word has a history in this country, and it is not a nice history.   And I think that history has to be acknowledged when we make decisions about using that word in public.

My problem is that that word actually has two histories, and not one, and what seems to be going on here is the unstated but unmistakable decision to acknowledge only one of those histories as legitimate.

The article gave no indication that I could see of the racial composition of the jury, but I’d really like to know.

Because I know something else from my students.  My middle class and upper middle class African Americans–and especially the women–hate that word just as much as this jury hated it.

I’d like to know what’s actually going on.

Written by janeh

September 4th, 2013 at 8:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Muses Hate Me

with 2 comments

It’s quarter after six on a Tuesday morning, and as the day and time will attest, I’ve just had a REALLY bad day at work. 

I don’t know what it is about this book, but writing it has been one of the greatest struggles of my life.

Some of that can be put down to the fact that I have changed the format more than slightly for this one, and it’s been decades since I did something like that with a Gregor.

So what feels to me to be so alien and wrong may just be my head going “but this isn’t a Gregor!” when it is.

Whatever the reason, this is now the fifth day in a row that I’ve thrown out everything I’ve done, and I’m feeling a little testy. On top of that, I’ve got class, and the IRS, and I don’t know what else, and that’s making me testy, too.

It is just, on the whole, shaping up to not being a great day.

What is making it all worse is that, bad day or not, I’m sitting here really wanting to write.  Writing feels to me like the thing I ought to be doing. 

I really wish I was one of those people who could write books out of sequence, stitch all the scenes together at the end, and end up with a coherent narrative.

Unfortunately, I’m not even a little bit like that.

Oddly enough, I can remember being young and trying to work like that.

I was ten or twelve years old and I had no idea how to write a novel, but I had a typewriter my grandmother had given me for Christmas and a big room at the top of the house with a wall of built in bookshelves and the first walk in megacloset I’d ever seen or heard of.

When I could escape from the obligation to be sociable, I would go up there and work on whatever I was thinking about.

This tended to be a frustrating exercise, because I really had no idea what I was doing, not even with the number of books I’d read.

This was, remember, a time before the Internet or DVDs or even VHS, and we did not live close to a town or a library. If I wanted to go somewhere, I had to get my mother to take me, and mostly she wasn’t interested in hauling me in to town unless she had a reason to go there herself.

This was actually a bigger problem in relation to movies than it was to books.  My father’s attitude to books was that any child of his could have all she wanted, and any of them she wanted, and my mother wasn’t to get in my way or try to take them away from me for any reason.

My father owned a barn that sat on the back of a small office building he also owned, and he rented to barn to the biggest local distributor of paperback books to places like grocery stores and pharmacies.

In those days–and maybe even now–you did not return whole paperbacks that didn’t sell.  Instead, you ripped off the covers and sent just those back.

The man who rented by father’s barn would do just that and then give the coverless paperbacks to my father, who would then pass them on to me.

One of the books that was passed on was a thing called Understanding Human Sexual Response–not the actual Masters and Johnson book, but a book about that book, and when my mother saw me reading it, she had three kinds of fits.

When my father came home, she marched him into their bedroom and presented him with the book.

He then marched back out of the bedroom and gave it back to me. 

“Never tell her there’s anything she isn’t allowed to read.”

My father was a real old-fashioned liberal.  He was such an old-fashioned liberal, he ended his life calling himself a conservative.

Which was odd, because he had less than no use for religious conservatives, and he lived in Florida.

Anyway, I didn’t have much trouble getting books, because my mother would take me to bookstores if I had the money, because she didn’t want an argument with my father.

Movies, however, were another story.  The best I usually got, except when my mother herself had something she wanted to see, was matinees at a couple of second-run houses, and that meant that I often didn’t get to see the movies I wanted to see.

If it was running at the second run houses, I saw it.  If not, not.

(My mother did take me to movies she herself wanted to see.  She once let me take a day off from school so that we could both go to Cleopatra.  It was decades before I realized what that meant, that she had no girlfriends in the area she could go with, that marrying my father meant moving away from everything she knew and living in isolation with only us for company.  It was very lordly isolation, but it was isolation,)

One of the movies I did get to see was the Mutiny on the Bounty remake with Marlon Brando. 

This intrigued me beyond all reason, and for months afterwards I worked and worked and worked on a book I called Alicia Wellington. 

As ideas for books go, this was–let’s call it less than fully formed.

What it really was was the first sexual fantasies I ever had, even though it had no sex in it.  It was a different time and a different world, and I had no idea what sex was, although I thought it did. 

I thought it had something to do with kissing.

The idea for Alicia Wellington was that Wellington’s father was wrongly accused, tried and convicted of treason by the British government during the  Napoleonic wars, and in revenge she took off to sea to become a spy for the French.  At some point she was captured by a British vessel and thrown in the brig, therefore starting her big romance with our hero, the captain of the British ship.

If you’re sitting there holding your head in your hands and going “no! no! this history! the Duke of Wellington!”–

Yes, I do know I had the history all wrong, but I didn’t know it then, and I didn’t have access to the Internet or even a reliable ride to the library to find out.

And, of course, being the age I was, and not knowing how to write a novel, and really not knowing what it took to write an historical novel, I didn’t really care.

At any rate, after trying for what felt like ever to make a novel of this thing, I finally gave up and just started writing random scenes.

I had a lot of random scenes fixed very firmly in my head, some of the most vivid scenes I’ve ever been able to imagine. 

They were not connected to anything that could properly be called a plot.  I had that beginning, and I had the vague sense that something would happen between Wellington and the  hero that would result, at the very end, in her being reconciled to England.

This reconciliation would not result in her execution, of course, and her father would be vindicated and…

Yeah, okay.  It was a mess.

I still have a box somewhere with all those old manuscripts in it.  I don’t know if you can call what there is of Alicia Wellington a manuscript, but it’s floating around there somewhere with the script of a play I wrote in which a character staggers onto the stage at intervals and announces “I”m SICK of life!”

I don’t know why.  I don’t think I knew at the time.  I was reading plays by people like Jean Paul Sartre.

But the bottom line here, actually, is this–the scenes I wrote for Alicia Wellington never coalesced into a novel, and no scenes I’ve ever written out of sequence for anything have ever coalesced into a novel.

It’s just not a way I’m able to work.

When I was first starting out professionally and I had to come up “partials and a synopsis”–fifty pages and then a summary of what I was going to do–I had to write a first draft to find out what should be in the summary.

I still have to write a first draft to figure out what the plot is.

I have enough of this book I’m working on today so that I know what the plot is, so I really shouldn’t be having this much trouble.

But here I am.

It’s time to pack up for school.

Written by janeh

September 3rd, 2013 at 7:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Link

with 5 comments

Okay. The real post for today is the one just below this one, where the August reading list is.

But I just couldn’t pass up linking to this


Written by janeh

September 1st, 2013 at 11:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The August List

with 2 comments

It’s the first of September, so I owe the blog this, and the comments on this.

This was August–and yes, I know, I haven’t gotten around to the Aquinas commentary yet.

The list:

 48) Gertrude Himmelfarb. The Demoralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values. (rr)

 49) Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Inferno.

50) Paul Hoffman. The Man Who Only Loved Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth.

 51) Joseph Epstein. Snobbery: The American Version. (rr)

 52) Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. (rr)

 53) Erle Stanley Gardner. The Case of the Runaway Corpse.

54) Bruce Catton. Terrible Swift Sword.

55) Erle Stanley Gardner. The Case of the Blonde Bonanza.

p) George Steiner. “Archives of Eden.”

Anyway, some notes on this I haven’t already commented on:

The Paul Hoffman book claims to be a biography of Paul Erdos, but it isn’t, really–it’s more like a free form exposition of how mathematicians do math.

One of the things in Steiner’s essay (“Archives of Eden,” end of the list, look at yesterday’s blog post) I thought he got right was the part about how the Doing Good Bureaucrats–including especially teachers and psychologists and social workers–tend to “diagnose” high levels of creativity as “autism,” and if you look at the way most of the people in this book behave, you can see that that is exactly what would happen if they were coming up through American schools now.

They are all, also, incredibly interesting people I’d really like to know, and they would make terrific role models in the sense of presenting the fact (and it is fact) that not being like everybody else can be a very good thing.

You’d never get the book by the CPS people and the school board, though, because these very successful people don’t behave the way the Powers That Be have decreed that one must in order to be able to do anything.

Erdos himself, for instance, one of the greatest mathematicians in the history of the world and one of the ones with the most influence on modern mathematics, kept himself productive and creative well past the age when most mathematicians run out of ideas by consuming a steady diet of various forms of speed.

Once, having been charged by one of his friends with being a drug addict, he left off the speed cold turkey for three months.

At the end of that time, he announced that he hadn’t had a single mathematical idea in the entire period and that therefore not using the drugs was counterproductive, and went back to taking them.

I think this is fascinating on a number of levels–although I already knew that some people find drugs to be performance enhancing rather than otherwise.  Witness Coleridge, among others.

But speed is, if I’m remembering this correctly, one of the drugs that can cause an actual addiction–that old fashioned definition where your body has to give up a vital function and let the drug do it instead.

Meaning that if you try to ditch the drug cold turkey, you kill yourself.

With speed–I’m dredging this up from a LONG time ago–it’s the adrenal gland that shuts off.

Although apparently not in Erdos.

Or maybe all that stuff they taught me in college was wrong.

At any rate, it’s an interesting book, with interesting people, and I understood maybe a third of the math.

The Joseph Epstein book on snobbery is, well, peculiar.

It’s not the first time I’ve read it, and I found I had the same response to it this time that I had the last.

I think everybody everywhere is guilty of some form of snobbery in some area.  Some people care about birth and breeding.  Some people care about obscure science fiction stories or unappreciated Nascar drivers.

But snobbery on the scale and with the intensity described in this book is only what I can call…a lot of work.

A LOT of work.

I mean, for God’s sake. 

The man wrote the book using himself as an example a lot of the time, so I have to assume people like this actually exist in the real world, but if they do, I want to know how they get anything else done.

It is apparently possible to subject every area of your life to micomanaging rules and regulations that are never written down anywhere but that “everybody knows.”

Except, apparently, me.

Epstein and I don’t move in the same circles, of course, so it’s possible I know another set of rules and am just not aware of it–but the stuff as presented here is so complicated, I’m not sure I could know a comparable set of rules without knowing I knew them.

If that makes sense.

The first time I read this book–more than a decade ago–it did have one effect on me.

Epstein goes on at length about the absolute no-no of having one of those school or college stickers on your car. 

I have never forgotten it.  And although I never have put stickers on my cars–weird bumperstickers sometimes, but not the school and college ones–I always think of Epstein when I see the cars of people who do.

I have no idea why that would have stuck when nothing else about the book did.

In the end, I think if you asked me for a recommendation about a book about snobbery, I wouldn’t pick this one, but David Brooks’s Bobos In Paradise.

That one’s a lot of fun.

Bruce Catton’s Terrible Swift Sword is volume 2 in his three volume centennial history of the American Civil War.  Volume 1 is back there on the list a few months ago.

About this volume, I can only say this:  I can barely figure out how we managed to have an American Civil War, considering the amount of time the soldiers and their leaders spent wandering around lost in unfamiliar landscapes.

And not just wandering around lost.

My favorite figure in the case of characters in this volume is a Confederate general named Zollicoffer, who went charging up to what he was convinced was a unit of his own men in the middle of a battle.  Unfortunately, due to the fact that he was incredibly nearsighted, he made a mistake and the unit he went charging into was actually made up of soldiers on the Union side.  They shot him dead.

As marvelously amusing as this was, it was by no means the worst thing anyone did in these early battles.  At one point, the two top Confederate generals in charge of a defense–both of them civilians who were appointed to the brass as soon as the war started, but who had no real military experience–just got up and went home as soon as the battle got thick, leaving their third in command to fix the mess.

In the meantime, on the Union side, Generals Halleck and McClennon weren’t running away from battles so much as they weren’t bothering to engage in them at all.

If everybody had done everything right, the war would have been over in 1862 and slavery would still be with us.

Instead, the Confederates had a competent general, Robert E. Lee, who was in charge.

The Union also had a competent general, Ulysses S. Grant, but nobody was giving him anything really serious to do.


Anyway, that’s the list, and the month, and I’m going to go put on Thelonious Monk and Coltrane in the one CD I have of them playing together.


Written by janeh

September 1st, 2013 at 10:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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