Archives for category: Writing

Given the hundreds, possibly thousands, of audio cassettes I’ve purchased in my lifetime, it’s a little bit surprising that I didn’t know the inventor’s name until reading his obituaries this week. (I’ll note also, that Dhr Ottens was also on the team that developed the compact disc. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve owned 10,000 CDs since buying my first one in 1987.)

I was led down the rabbit hole of mix tapes by Jim and Mary Glaser, a pair of NYC transplants to Los Angeles who worked at American Pie Records with me when I was in high school. They probably made me a dozen in ‘84 and ‘85 that I wore out. Those tapes included my introductions to Frank Zappa and Lou Reed and dozens of other artists. And when I went off to SF State in the fall of ‘85, those tapes went with me and were my constant companions for the next four years (and beyond).

In a lot of ways Jim and Mary were the embodiment of cool for me. I think they’d come west to make it in rock and roll, but it wasn’t to be and they moved back to NYC around the time I moved to San Francisco. Occasionally they come to mind, but sadly their names are too common to provide useful search results. The mix tapes I made for friends for over a decade after that (and then the mix CDs) extended their philosophy of mixing both humor and great rock and roll. I developed my own philosophy as well, well before Nick Hornby expounded on the topic in High Fidelity. But that only proves that I wasn’t the only geek in the 90s making mix tapes. Far from it.

And then there’s Norton Juster. I’ve only read those first two books of his, The Phantom Tollbooth and The Dot and the Line, but I fell in love with them when I was first falling in love with books. I can tell from my copy of Dot that I bought it in the 90s (the price of 1.50 written in pencil, but with a heavy hand, indicates the source was probably Moe’s in Berkeley rather than Austen Books in San Francisco). The sticker inside that reads Ex Libris with my name, printed in color, means that I left it in a box with a friend, or with my sister, when I moved to Europe in 2002 and collected it some time later.

I bought my current copy of Tollbooth around 2007 at the same time I bought a copy for my nieces who were just getting to the first right age for it. And rereading it now, I’m still at the right age.

My earliest memory of Dot was the Chuck Jones cartoon that was in rotation with Looney Tunes on one or another of the other cartoon programmes that occupied my weekday afternoons on days I didn’t go to Hebrew school. I watched a lot of cartoons but that one stuck with me. A few days ago, I could only find a super-low resolution version on YouTube, but today, there’s this lovely 1040p upload. Take ten minutes to enjoy it in all its 1965 glory.

In the period when I was separated from my first wife, she dated a guy who in a number of ways was everything that I wasn’t. I was quite sure at the time that I was the squiggle in the story and he was a line who could do amazing things. Someone at the time, who knew more about him than I did pointed out that he was very much a squiggle. I still found myself jealous, but I also took the time to appreciate my own vectors. And how much dot, line, and squiggle we all had in us.

I honestly don’t know where I’m going with this. These stories still move me for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint. The lessons Milo learns on his journey through the tollbooth resonate – I still find value in not jumping to conclusions (though I still do it) and in fighting off the easy repetitive tasks that take the time I could be doing something worthwhile (for a wide range of definitions of worthwhile). It’s strange, because Juster created a quest in the Arthurian tradition with a hero who may not realize what a fantastic boon he’s returned with. Simple as a cup on the shelf but still full of mystery.

After the minor MTV hit that was Mexican Radio, Stan Ridgway left Wall of Voodoo and a couple of years later released his first solo album, 1983’s The Big Heat on IRS Records, the same label that had released Wall of Voodoo’s first three releases. I’m sure I have wonderful things to say about that album. I wore out the grooves on my cassette of it, for certain. In 1989, Ridgway moved to Geffen Records for his second solo album, Mosquitos, a copy of which has found its way to me for the first time in about 20 years. And it holds up. His music always had the feel of the best noir fiction and musically he pulls on the same devices that make up the atmospheres of Dashiell Hammett novels and Bogart movies.

Thematically, Mosquitos works over the same characters, low-lifes with pessimistic outlooks (Can’t Complain) and guys who think the girl is in it for them (Peg and Pete and Me).

In general the whole album is of a piece. Some of it upbeat (Goin’ Southbound, the aforementioned Last Honest Man), some of it more atmospheric (bookends Heat Takes a Walk/Lonely Town and A Mission In Life). 1989 was a weird year, though, for this kind of album. Two years later, he made his last album for the majors, Partyball. Alas, Geffen put out the made-for-Doctor-Demento track I Wanna Be A Boss as the first single. And people who’d followed Ridgway for a few years said, What the hell?

He continues to make great music, but fell off the radar for me at that point. It might be a case of those being the albums I heard when I was that impressionable age. But I absolutely recommend all three of those first solo albums.

While Mosquitos isn’t available on Bandcamp, there’s a veritable scad of Ridgway goodies (including live recordings from the period) available his BC page.

Discogs links: The Big Heat / Mosquitos / Partyball

(~850 words) This week’s Bartleby column, Network Effects (sorry, paywall), looks at corporate networking through the lens of Marissa King’s book Social Chemistry: Decoding the Elements of Human Connection. The upshot of the Bartleby column is that the ways people connect in the workplace are hard to categorise, but courtesy increases cooperation.

This week’s Laptops at the Ready column, The lockdown has helped Greece to digitise (also paywalled), discusses improvements in the Greek education system’s distance learning program. In a nutshell, Greece started this year with a deficit of distance learning capabilities on the parts of both students and teachers. The first school shutdown in March saw a distinction between maths and science teachers being prepared to move to digital learning while ‘some history and literature specialists without digital skills refused to cooperate.’ Being one of those liberal arts types who does have digital skills, this sort of statement has me itching to see the writer’s sources.

With pushes to distribute tools and skills more evenly, November’s lockdown tested a new online teaching system. ‘When a chaotic first session triggered a social-media storm of protests from angry parents, glitches were quickly smoothed out.’

And this is where the two articles collide for me. In the workplace, incivility creates a toxic environment. This applies both when the people interacting are peers and when there’s a power differential. Anecdote: Last week I was in a Slack chat with a colleague about a work matter. In the course of our chat, I expressed an opinion about a recent political event, thinking he would share my feelings. He responded that he felt differently and asked that we not discuss politics. It was a situation that could have been much more difficult, but wasn’t because he was civil and I backed off. I would have backed off had he not been civil, but it would have strained on our ability to work together.

Much like the assertion regarding humanities teachers’ resistance to change, I want more supporting data on the chaos of the first sessions in November and the social media storm of protest. What both of these pieces suggest (especially in the context of recent events and the ease with which one can anger and be angered when we’re not looking at the people we’re talking or listening to) is that we benefit more from being nice. I wish I could be more sociopolitical when I say things like this. Wrap it in something that says how much it is in your/my/our self-interest as individuals to be nice to one another. But this is not that blog.

Greek parents who hopped onto social media to protest problems in a new system might have been effective in one or two definitions of the problem at hand. When a child’s room is dirty and a parent yells at him, he cleans his room and the parent is no longer angry at the state of his room. It’s not indicative of effective communications between parents, administrators, students, and teachers (or between parents and children, says Mr. Childless here). In the moment yelling seems to work. Whatever problems the new education system faced weren’t solved by the yelling. Developers, systems administrators, technical writers addressed the bugs at the software, network, and documentation level, and teachers were able to do their jobs. Problems that were apparent the moment it went online may not have been apparent before a million and a half students and teachers logged on at the same time. Inviting anger and agitation on social media put pressure on those IT people, but it didn’t smooth out or solve the problems.

What all that protest did do was make it more difficult for the participants in the discussion to communicate without rancor in the future. This isn’t the only parents vs. school system argument I’ve read about recently. There seems to be a vested interest (in some circles) in portraying teachers and schools administrators as somehow having far more power (and free time) than they do in reality. There’s another discussion that covers who has more power, input, and influence in the circle of people and institutions that make up a school district. What is of interest is how the players perceive their own power. Near the end of his column, Bartleby writes, ‘Ms. King invokes the aphorism that “assholes can be identified by observing how they treat people with less power.”‘ In that same discussion, perhaps we can talk about how people who perceive themselves as powerless treat people who probably don’t have any more power.

In business and society, we form networks with others and belong to some networks by virtue of certain relationships. I belong to networks of colleagues I didn’t hire and networks of friends I choose. Parents belong to networks involving schools they don’t necessarily choose, but they belong to those networks nonetheless. The degrees to which we are active in these networks may vary, but courtesy makes everyone’s participation in the networks more effective. Bartleby’s conclusion: ‘”Don’t be an asshole” is not a scientific statement, but it is still a pretty good management motto,’ applies to these other relationships as well.

Image source: https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/how-will-coronavirus-school-closures-affect-americas-children-136602

So my desire this year was to read more books by women and non-binary writers. This doesn’t mean that I’d be focused on literary fiction necessarily, and I read very little. I’ve been getting newsletters from Tor books (sign up here) for a while and taking them up on the occasional freebie and this guided most of my reading this year. Meaning a lot of SF and fantasy. Occasionally I’d pick something recommended by The Writer’s Almanac. And for some reason I reread Virgina Woolf’s Orlando and was far less impressed with it than I was 25 years ago.

I have several new favouite authors whose works I hadn’t known of before this year. Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series is probably my favourite new writing. She’s created a version of the future with fantastic non-terrestrial but marvelously human characters to interact with superb earth-descended folks. Of the three novels so far published in the series (fourth and final due in February), the one that touched me the most was A Closed and Common Orbit.

Nnedi Okorafor‘s Binti series is only my second or third encounter with Afrofuturism (Black Panther and the Parable novels by Octavia Butler being the others) and I found it intriguing and fascinating and beautiful. While I’m now caught up with Chambers’ work, Okorafor has been prolific. I’m not quite sure where I’ll go next.

I’m going to have the same problem with Mary Robinette Kowal. Her Lady Astronaut series posits a US space program that begins of necessity in the 1950s due to a meteor striking the eastern seaboard. Our main character was a pilot in WW2 and has to fight her way into the space program. In the first two books we have this great combination of hard science and the realities of sexism and racism in mid-century America. I read the first two volumes of the series (The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky). The Relentless Moon is waiting for the new year. And, again, she’s prolific, with eight other novels and a scad of short stories waiting for me as well.

A.E. Warren’s Tomorrow’s Ancestors series, posits a future in which supposedly more advanced humans have not quite enslaved Homo Sapiens, but they keep Sapiens down in retribution for the ills and wars they created. The situation is a lot more complicated, but our teen hero Elise teams up with both cloned neanderthals and more advanced humans to seek out a new future. The Museum of Second Chances and The Base of Reflections are out now and are really good. (Note: these books will be reissued next year. The Museum of Second Chances has a new title: Subject Twenty-One.)

I’ve also really enjoyed the first three books in Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries. Our (anti-) hero is a SecUnit (a kind of cyborg guard/gun for hire who should be under the control of The Company, but they’ve managed to hack their own governor module and can roam free. All Murderbot really wants is time to enjoy soap operas and other downloaded entertainment, but there are mysteries to solve first. I enjoyed All Systems Red and Artificial Condition (Murderbot 1 and 2) more than Rogue Protocol (#3) but I’m hoping that’s a glitch and that books 4, 5, and 6 will be better.

J.Y. (Neon) Yang’s Tensorate series has a promising start. The twin offspring of the Protector are raised in a monastery and eventually learn that one is a prophet of sorts. In the world of the stories, one doesn’t choose one’s sex until age 18 or so. Eventually they join the rebellion against the Protector. For relatively short novels, they’re really hard to summarise but very beautiful. Yang drops us somewhat in the deep end with the technologies of the stories’ world, but it’s well worth riding out. Start with The Black Tides of Heaven and continue with The Red Threads of Fortune. Black Tides is included in Tor’s free anthology, Fantasy from Asia and the Asian Diaspora.

I think my favourite read of the year was This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Two characters fighting on opposing sides of the titular war leave eachother messages on their various battlefields and eventually fall in love. And it’s so much more complicated and beautiful than that. The ending comes much too soon. A couple of years ago, my friend Jeff recommended Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, which at the time was a whole lot of money for little cash for the kindle, so I bought and it sat in the queue. After Time War, I read the first book in the sequence, Three Parts Dead, which is also quite good. I look forward to getting to more of that in the new year.

Another near-perfect book is Silvia Moreno-Garcia‘s Signal to Noise. The story is of a trio of misfit teenagers in late 80s Mexico City who discover a sort of magic. Various tensions tear the trio apart. Our protagonist, Meche, moves to Norway after high school, but returns in 2009 for her father’s funeral. And the stories run in tandem until we learn the various secrets everyone has held. On the one hand, it’s a fairly straight up romance with a smidge of the supernatural. On the other hand, the writing is magical all on its own. And Moreno-Garcia, who I’d never previously heard of, has seven other novels and a bunch of short stories. And her MA thesis is on the work of HP Lovecraft.

And most recently, I’ve finished the first book in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, Every Heart A Doorway. Book 6 (of what I hear will be 10) in the series comes out in January or February and Tor offered the first five for free for one day each a couple of weeks ago. I thought on day 1 that there had been a mistake, because I had book two in my download folder. I pinged tor.com on Twitter and the author tweeted me back very quickly, but not before I’d figured out that I had book two from a previous giveaway and I’d downloaded book one into the wrong folder. Anyway, Seanan McGuire is really nice on the tweetbox. Every Heart A Doorway is a slightly creepy and very beautiful story of children who have all found doorways to other worlds, but for whatever reason had to come back to this reality and deal with all of the consequences. And in the midst of a new arrival’s first week, there’s a murder. And so there’s a nifty sort of Agatha Christie story to tell as well. And not only are there four more in this series immediately available and one preordered, McGuire has published a couple dozen other novels and a lot of short stories. And five albums of music which are currently out of print, though there’s a rumour at least one is coming back out.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was a prolific writer primarily known for her novels To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and Orlando, and the feminist essay A Room of One’s Own. I was introduced to these novels in college and returned to them after certain cinematic excursions into the material. Dalloway and Woolf were central the novel and film The Hours. Sally Potter made a film of Orlando in the 1990s starring Tilda Swinton and featuring Quentin Crisp in the roll of Queen Elizabeth I.

Orlando (1928) is an outlier in that it’s in many ways a love letter to Woolf’s erstwhile lover, Vita Sackville-West. It’s comic, and light-hearted, which aren’t generally words associated with Woolf’s work. I picked it up again last night after a long time away from it. I try to find emotionally light reading for that half an hour at 2AM when I’m generally awake these days and don’t want anything too involving. Wodehouse often fits the bill, for example. However, I’d forgotten the opening paragraphs and was rather shocked by the sheer racism of those passages.

He…was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. It was the colour of an old football, and more or less the shape of one, save for the sunken cheeks and a strand or two of coarse, dry hair, like the hair on a cocoanut. Orlando’s father, or perhaps his grandfather, had struck it from the shoulders of a vast Pagan who had started up under the moon in the barbarian fields of Africa; and now it swung, gently, perpetually, in the breeze which never ceased blowing through the attic rooms of the gigantic house of the lord who had slain him.

Of course I have no idea why this passage never previously struck me, but it’s the nature of these times to question our assumptions, or lack thereof. The terms Moor, pagan, and barbarian to describe a single person, dead long before the action of the book begins, but obviously a source of the titular character’s emotional (and probably financial) inheritance. Woolf follows this statement with fairly glowing terms about the Orlando’s beauty, poetry, and outlook. But I return to those opening sentences and wonder at that casual approach Woolf takes.

1928 or no, it surprises me, and raises again the question of how one interacts with historical texts – do I say this person whose insights into the human condition are some of the most incisive in literature is no longer someone I’ll read, for the political reasons that we use to take other artists out of our personal spheres of influence?

It’s a casual racism in which shorthand is used to make up for characterization. Similar to the Jews in J.B. Priestley’s The Good Companions, and possibly all of the non-Europeans in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”.

In The Trouble with “Heart of Darkness”, David Denby offers this opinion submitted by Edward Said: ‘Most imaginative writers of the nineteenth century…failed to connect their work, their own spiritual practice, to the squalid operations of colonialism. Such writers as Austen, Carlyle, Thackeray, Dickens, Tennyson, and Flaubert were heroes of culture who either harbored racist views of the subject people then dominated by the English and the French or merely acquiesced in the material advantages of empire. They took empire for granted as a space in which their characters might roam and prosper; they colluded in evil. Here and there, one could see in their work shameless traces of the subordinated world…’

Woolf, though writing 30 years after “Heart of Darkness”, seems to fall squarely within the canon Denby and Said are citing. Her hero is an heir to the fortunes of Elizabethan colonialism just as much as the characters in Austen and Dickens.

Denby’s essay is a counterpoint of sorts to Achebe’s An Image of Africa: Racism in Heart of Darkness. ‘Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality..’

I’m pretty sure a reread of “Heart of Darkness” is in order right now. One of the thrusts of Achebe’s argument against Conrad is that he reduces the natives of the Congo to caricatures with neither language nor art. The excuses made for Conrad include an argument that this wasn’t the story he was writing. Denby addresses this – that arguments against HoD are often that he should show the same modern sensibilities towards the non-European elements of his story as he does to the European. This isn’t Conrad’s job, but the shorthand he uses to compare the savage internal world of Europeans with a non-existent savage external world of Africa is similar to the shorthand with which Woolf opens Orlando. And there is most definitely a conscious or unconscious racial/racist aspect to this shorthand.

Denby suggests that Achebe, as a novelist and not an academic, doesn’t bring the necessary rigor to this discussion. And it’s easy to write off some of what he says as unsupported assertions about Conrad’s racism in general (actually well sourced by Achebe) and the racism in “Heart of Darkness” in particular. I think I’ll run with my initial take on the matter which is that the racist tropes that both Conrad and Woolf employ are in service to easy analogies. The stories of the Africans, pagans, or Moors aren’t the stories either are telling. On the other hand, Conrad’s ‘dog in breeches’ comparison (cited by Achebe) is simply sloppy writing – Woolf using the terms Moor, pagan, and barbarian interchangeably to describe the same severed head is also sloppy writing.

Neither Conrad nor Woolf (who, in Orlando’s introduction, thanks no fewer than 20 fairly illustrious literary contemporaries for their feedback) are careless writers. But I think both writers are relying on a European readership to recognize the tropes and to play along with how these tropes define and refine the portrayals of their main characters.

In this way it’s easy to contrast light with dark using these tropes, in the same way that Kurtz’ fall has to do with his adoption of the local nature and culture and his submersion in the native, dark part of the world, and his collusion in the enslavement and killing of the natives. The Grove of Death sequence cited by Achebe is essential to the story of Kurtz’ fall because it shows how the colonials used the natives to death in their trade. Orlando, like Woolf and Sackville-West herself, is a product of these activities – the wealth of the west is based on this kind of exploitation top to bottom and so is the exploitation pointed out in that opening paragraph.

I don’t know what to make of the fact that Woolf’s father was a prolific writer on ethics, science, and humanism and that her paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were prominent abolitionists.

Given how much input Woolf accepted regarding the history covered in Orlando, and how much she left in place, it’s hard to deny that the views expressed in the novel are her own, or those shared with Sackville-West, or those of the first readers. How else to explain the shorthand?

Later, the character Orlando compares the exploits of his ancestors (who killed individuals of different nationalities) with those of one particular poet. The poet, not the murderous ancestors, is immortal, and Orlando, too, ‘[perceives], however, that the battles which Sir Miles and the rest had waged against armed knights to win a kingdom, were not half so arduous as this which he now undertook to win immortality against the English language.’

Is Woolf saying that as Orlando grows, he grows from the limited mortality of his murderous ancestors into the immortal poet? It’s possible, but doesn’t reduce the shock of those opening lines. As the book progresses and Orlando (who remains about 30 years old from 1600 through to 1928) evolves away from that racism of that opening paragraph and the reader might be forgiven for thinking the attitude expressed there is that of the author and not the character himself. An argument might be made that because Orlando’s sex changes from male to female (in chapter 3), that this attitude belongs to the barbarity of maleness. And, in fact, the language of the story becomes more genteel for much of the story’s remainder.

As the book nears its conclusion, the narrator considers several of the lives Orlando has lived, ‘…a biography is consider complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand. Choosing then, only those selves we have found room for, Orlando may now have called on the boy who cut the n*****’s head down; the boy who strung it up again,’ and two dozen more that we’ve met in the course of the novel. Again there’s the shock of her racist language when we thought we were or she was done with it.

There’s probably an answer to the question of Woolf’s racism if one delves into the letters and the diaries, and reads far more than I have. Or we can accept that she’s the product of her time and her place and her class. Oddly, she wrote of Ulysses that it was ‘egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating…When one can have cooked flesh, why have the raw?’ One question of Orlando is, why when Woolf could have prepared the meal to perfection, did she garnish it so crudely?