Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 5 (final)

After 560 years of moveable type, why is our job not yet done? Why is the world still full of serious people trying to find great names for different new alphabets?….Because the world and its contents are continually changing. We need to express ourselves in new ways.

I’ve put it off as long as I could: sadly, we have reached the final chapter.

Chapter 22: Just My Type

What does your favorite font say about you? This is what Lexmark thought in 2001:

Don’t use Courier unless you want to look like a nerd. It’s a favorite for librarians and data entry companies.
Alternativesly, if you see yourself as a sex kitten, go for a soft and curvy font like Shelley.
People who use Sans Serif fonts like Univers tend to value their safety and anonymity.
Comic Sans, conversely, is the font for self-confessed attention-seekers because it allows for more expression of character.

It seems “big round O’s” seem friendly, and, as you’d expect, more rectangular letters appear technical. Italicized Humana Serif Light is the font for a love letter; a Dear John letter could be gentle in Verdana, or more absolute in Courier. But all that’s from 2001; now we have Pentagram’s online therapist who will determine What Type Are You? I turned out to be Archer Hairline, which, I’ll admit, is appealing, but is far too light for everyday use.

Fonts are fun, and font designers know it; look at all the games and sites we’ve come across so far – and don’t forget Max Kerning (kerning is the art of spacing; once you design a letter, you have to decide how much space goes between them). Apple has TypeDrawing, and MS-Word has had WordArt for decades now – for that matter, remember ASCII-art?. Or you can play Cheese or Font online. Look how much time is taken picking out business cards and wedding invitations; and if you’ve ever tried to create a flyer on your computer, you know how much fun you can have – and how much time you can waste – er, spend.

Type is emotional. Way back on page 2, when I saw Chicago, the Apple font, it brought me right back to the mid-80s when I encountered my first Apple. I couldn’t have reconstructed the font from memory, but seeing it, yes, I remember exactly where the computer was, what I did on it (a calendar was my primary project), and I remember Ivy Seligman (name changed to protect the innocent) accusing me of deleting files since I was the only one in the office capable of accomplishing such an advanced feat. Remembering the Superior Cub printing press brought back all sorts of memories of my brother.

Type matters. I recently came across (thanks to Paul Debraski at IJustReadAboutThat) a remarkable short fiction piece by Jonathan Safran Foer titled “About the Typefaces Not Used in This Edition.” As Paul says, “it works as meditation on what a book is, what words are and how we will ultimately read or experience books in the future.” That’s what type is for, after all – to affect, one way or another, the aesthetic experience of reading.

When I started this blog, I added a little at a time. One of the last things I played with was adding a feature font through TypeKit. Several free options were offered, and I ended up with what you’re reading now, FertigoPro from ExLjbris. I spent about two weeks, several hours a day, trying to figure out how to incorporate this; the directions were less than helpful. A few months later, WordPress sent out a directive that they were changing their system, and panic is the only word to describe what I felt. I’d actually like to change this font – while it’s lovely, in practice it’s too small, it’s not that readable, I don’t like the “1,” and the italics aren’t easily distinguished – but I never could figure out how, and now, from what I understand, if I change anything I will have to pay at least $30 a year for the service. While that’s not exorbitant, I’m pretty rigid about not paying for stuff on the Internet since it can get out of hand very quickly. I’ll probably relent one of these days.

I suppose there are people who think this is all foolishness, this font business – that Times New Roman is good enough for anything, and if not there’s always Arial. I choose to believe those people are rare. I prefer to hang with people like Karen Kavett, who has an entire series of videos on YouTube about typography. Or with John Boardley, whose I Love Typography site is full of delights – or with Simon Garfield (who was kind enough to answer an emailed question immediately), who was inspired to write a book about fonts, and who provides plenty of further reading therein.

Did I mention I love this book?


PEN/O.Henry 2012: Christine Sneed, “The First Wife” from New England Review, Winter 2010/11

New England Review, Winter 2010/11

New England Review, Winter 2010/11

How did it end? Before I say what it was like to be courted by him, to fall in love, however briefly or genuinely, I prefer to talk about the end because it is rarely ever given its due. It is the filmmaker’s and the writer’s most reliable trick to seduce us with the details of a marvelous and improbable coupling while hinting darkly that things did not end well, that some tragedy or tragic character flaw in one or both of the principals brought on a heart-breaking collapse. And when the collapse comes, it is rarely given more than a few pages, a few sodden minutes at the end of the film.

As a writer, Emma knows, of course, that endings must be earned by the story, that the seeds of the ending are sown by the beginning and nurtured by the middle. Does this story plant, nurture, earn its ending?

In fact there are two stories to consider: Emma’s marriage, and the story as written by Sneed. First, the story. It opens with this declaration:

The famous do resemble the unfamous, but they are not the same species, not quite. The famous have mutated, amassed characteristics – refinements or corporeal variations – that allow their projected images, if not their bodies themselves, to dominate the rest of us.

She then goes on to set up the backwards structure, or sort-of backwards. The timeline shifts around pretty freely. Section 2 begins with Anders’ background before shifting to the end of the marriage, delivered by Anders over the phone while he’s shooting a film somewhere in Canada. There’s more flashback musing, before moving back in section 6 to the actress Anders is leaving Emma for. I’m very fond of backwards-told stories; I can’t think offhand of any literary examples (suggestions welcomed) but remember a couple of TV episodes (thirtysomething, ER) that pulled it off fairly well. That isn’t what we have here, though, and I’ll admit I was disappointed.

And again, as with the Berry piece, I felt lectured to, like I was reading a precautionary tale: Do not marry a movie star. Ok, I’ll try to avoid that.

Throughout the middle, Emma reveals pieces of Anders’ character that hint he is not really such a catch. At their first lunch, she makes a clever joke, a play off of “What I really want to do is direct,” and he doesn’t get it. He proposed, with no forewarning, on The Tonight Show. His success just happened to him; he was discovered. Still, he’s reasonably thrifty for a celebrity, and she loves him. But:

If you are married to a man whom thousands, possibly millions of women believe themselves to be in love with, some of them, inevitably, more beautiful and charming than you are, it is not a question of if but of when.

There’s a universality to that statement that makes it ironic.

But back to endings. Does Emma’s marriage earn its ending? I’ll go to the ending of the story to answer that: Emma’s thoughts on their first night together:

This isn’t real, I kept thinking all of that night and the next morning. This is a joke, isn’t it?

Turns out, it was.

Food Network Star 2012: Episode 3, Dessert Chopping Block

Image borrowed from because it was so perfect!

Image borrowed from because it was so perfect!

Hello, I am Zin, and tonight we will get Chopped! Scott Conant, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Marc Murphy (but not Ted Allen, where is Ted?) show up to judge the contestants who perform in a Dessert-Only version of Chopped. They compete within their teams, and one from each team will be up for elimination! They have 30 minutes and they have to finish NINE plates, that is a lot, usually it is four! Then they will do a live talk which includes a culinary tip!

Team Alton (Justin, Judson, Martie, Emily) goes first – they have chocolate kisses, pancetta, graham crackers, and kumquats. That is not bad, really. They are lucky they did not get tofu or zucchini or potato chips, these were all things on the real Chopped! Alton coaches them to think of the kumquats as acidity and the pancetta as salt, and “you can make anything with a graham cracker.” That is the way to view a Chopped basket, with the things as functional.

Justin says it is the inverse of Christmas: the basket of joy is a basket of terror. That is a pretty good line, the inverse thing! He says he is going to do a riff on lunch lady no-bake cookies. I am not sure if that is a real thing or if he is embellishing something he is making up! He shocks the judges by first melting the kisses in their wrappers…. Then he puts them through a sieve but does it not still impart a metallic taste? And what if little pieces get through? Not to mention the paper, I do not think this is a good idea. He ends up with a small amount of chocolate which he mixes with chocolate chips and puts in the microwave but he burns the first batch! He throws it away and melts more, and I think that means he serves only chocochips and no Kisses! But the judges do not say anything. He burns his pancetta! He has to pick out the few pieces that are not burned. Then at the very end he is flapping a towel at his plates, to fan the excess powdered sugar off, he says. Between the burned stuff and the smoke and the blowing sugar, I think he has made a terrible mess! The judges are worried but they love his cookie! It is basically congealed melted chocolate chips with pancetta and graham crackers mixed in, yes? I think the judges are giving him a pass on this! His live talk is great, though, he really is a clever storyteller, something like: “Here’s how this happens, I open the box, someone is telling me I can’t do something. I don’t like that. I’m a culinary Ombudsman.” I have to admire someone who knows the word “Ombudsman” and can use/pronounce it correctly. And then about going to Hershey Park when he was in high school and the cafeteria cookie and “then I rush back to New York” and “with my whirlwind blow the extra sugar from my plates.” I do not think that constitutes a tip. The judges love him. I still do not believe his cookie was that good, but he was fun to watch. I wonder if the whitewash of his food means he is one of the Chosen (because I still believe with all my heart that they know the 2 or 3 they want from the beginning).

Judson is not happy about Chopped or about Dessert, since it brings up fat memories. Alex asks what he is making and he says chocolate infused cornmeal cake; she says she loves that he does not want to reveal what he is making. But he just did! He is making a chocolate infused cornmeal cake, was she not paying attention? Or did they edit this to the point where it does not make sense because viewers will not notice? He knows his corncake is not quite done, but he has no choice now. He talks about his grandfather and bourbon being his favorite thing (surprise grampa!) and the judges love his talk (I did not hear a tip) but his corncake is not cooked.

Martie has been making comments about her age all episode. It is strange, she will not say how old she is but keeps pointing out she is the oldest and is 20 years older than some other contestants. In her intro she said at one point she was “over 30” then “over 40”. I am thinking she is really over 50, because several other contestants, Malcolm, Edward, Josh, and Michele, are over 40, and they are not blathering about it all the time! I also think she is hoping to discourage them from sending her home by getting the pity vote and maybe hoping for some “young guilt.” Not that either Bob or Susie (or the coaches) are young! Scott asks what she is doing, and she tells him about indoor smores (I have to admit, smores was what I thought when I saw the basket) but she stops working! They keep telling her to cook and talk, but she stops and stops, and Alton says, “Ms Duncan, if you can’t cook and talk at the same time, shut up and cook.” The judges all look at him. He shrugs and says “Sorry.” I am sure they edited that to look better than it was (this whole episode has a highly edited feel to it) but it was funny. And I have to say if someone cannot cook and talk at the same time they probably are not going to be the next Food Network Star! Her talk goes over and she does not get to her tip. The judges say her dish is too simple, and she did not transform the ingredients. Alton makes her promise never to “evoke” (I think he meant “invoke”) her age again, he is sick of it! So am I! Thank you Alton! But I think she will be the one from Team Alton who is Chopped.

Emily makes a chocolate cupcake with all the basket ingredients, plus some chili, for a Chocolate Fried Pancetta Delight. It sounds good, actually, salt and chili go well with chocolate! She talks about her grandfather cleaning out the refrigerator. She manages a tip, about the salt and chili (I am not sure which one she means, or both) with chocolate –hey, I knew that! I am so proud of myself! They love her, they love her cupcake, Scott got the perfect bite with all the flavors.

Alton is proud of his team. Giada is proud of Alton for being nice to them.

And it is time for Team Giada! They get Reese’s Pieces, popcorn (unpopped), coconut, and grape soda. Everyone seems to think this is awful, but it all makes sense to me. Ok, the grape soda is gross, but it has texture and flavor and it is a natural for a sauce if you add booze.

Martita thinks it is a torture basket. I think Martita has never seen the real Chopped. She makes bunuelos (I have never heard that word before but I see they are Mexican fritters) with fruit which seems like a good approach, since she can put almost everything into the dough. The judges tell her she forgot her tip! But only Emily has had a tip so far, unless they edited them out! They like the fritters but they think she is nervous and tentative, and Giada will work on her confidence.

Ippy never wanted to be on Chopped, and here he is. He uses the grape soda to make tempura batter (I do not understand, does it not turn purple? Or at least pink or some awful grey?) and makes coconut mango tempura. He is behind on plating so just throws things into martini glasses! He feels bad being so sloppy but at least he plates (I suspect some of them did not plate and that was just not included; there are tricksters at work here, do not believe otherwise!) He talks about Hawaii and all the people who came there and did not speak the language so they used the universal language of food, which is exactly the sort of talk Susie just loves! They like his food and his talk. His tip was about using soda water to make tempura batter fluffy.

Linkie is feeling pressure because she is the Dessert Queen. Well, yeah, that is what happens when you call yourself the Dessert Queen, you are expected to know how to make dessert, and so far she has not done very well at it. She makes PJ kissed mousse. Is PJ supposed to be PB&J? Her talk is about her husband loving the peanut butter candies, and her tip is to pour chocolate down the side of the bowl into the eggs so it will cool before it hits them. Scott says it the most seamless tip they have heard so far (I do not think so! I think she stopped talking, and said, “Here is a tip,” and that is not seamless, but maybe I just do not like her for some reason). They love her mousse and say it shows expertise. At last, after three tries the Dessert Queen has made a good dessert!

Josh makes aebleskiver, a Danish style donut (“pancake ball” is probably closer) which is pretty interesting for a rock & roll sushi chef. He puts the PB into the batter and makes a curried sugar and caramel and roasted coconut for topping. He does something with candied ginger to be like an Asian inspired nougat, I am not sure what goes into what here. He is deep frying popcorn which no one understands (I think he does not know how to make popcorn). He talks about the donut but never gets to his tip. Marc is afraid he will break a tooth on the unpopped popcorn kernels. Scott does not taste the PB. Bob thinks he tried to cover too much in his one-minute talk and they are not getting the interesting side of him (and yes, I am sure there is an interesting side to someone who makes Danish food consistently) because they are distracted by tangents like Robert DiNiro jokes. Oh, no, that was last week, but the same thing this week, he is talking and he can not stop! I think he will be nominated for Worst Dessert from this team.

Yvan makes PB bread pudding and coconut caramel popcorn and a grape soda syrup. He decides to focus on one thing and make it shine, and that is the popcorn. He serves the syrup in a glass and Susie tries to drink it which is pretty silly since he calls it syrup, but if you serve something in a glass someone is going to drink it to make the point that you should only serve drinkable things in glasses! His popcorn goes over big, but his energy is too low. I do not remember his talk at all and I did not write anything down so I assume he did not give a tip.

And now Team Bobby is up, with chocolate (it seems the chocolate company is the sponsor tonight), a whole fresh pineapple, pasta sheets, and black lava salt. Ok, I did some research on the salt because I never heard of it, and at best it is salt from Hawaiian waters that is sun-dried and mixed with coconut shell charcoal! No wonder it tastes like sulfur like Scott says! At worst it is any old sea salt mixed with any old activated charcoal! It is supposed to be used for finishing, not cooking. All this fuss over salt.

Malcolm starts with the pineapple and makes salt and sugar fried pasta and chipotle chocolate sauce over flambe pineapple with cognac. He pronounces “chipotle” correctly so I approve of him! I am amazed at how many real chefs can not say that word! His talk is halting, and his tip might be that flambe is good but it is not very clear. They love his food, but not his talk. Scott asks if he enjoys doing this (never a good sign), and Malcolm falls all over himself to assure him he does!

Eric says food is his secret weapon. Well, sure, if you want to think of it that way! He makes a free form napoleon of fried pasta sheets and mascarpone cheese with hand crafted caramel and chocolate sauces. His tip is to use coconut milk and coconut cream to make caramel to give it a coconut flavor. The food is beautiful and tastes great and they do not complain about his talk, and Bob loved watching him work. Eric has gone three for three dishes so far.

Nikki does not like or make dessert. Bad start, Nikki! That attitude is what sent whosie home last week! She makes bread pudding with pasta, she says to give it different textures, but I suspect it is because bread pudding is the only dessert she knows how to make. Her tip is to use stale bread for bread pudding (duh, that is how bread pudding was invented) or to stale fresh bread in the oven before making it. Nobody likes the dish, it is not cooked, and she sounds scripted. Yes, she does. Bob says she sounds like an infomercial which is true. I think she is going to be doing the Producer Challenge.

Michele thinks Giada is watching her. She is really freaked by Giada! How strange! I like Michele but she is sounding a little crazy! She makes a free form napoleon with chocolate sauce, and her tip is to not completely melt it but let it finish melting with carry-over head. They love her dessert, but her presentation was restrained and self-conscious; she blames Giada! No, she says only Giada makes her nervous. This is very strange! Michele, you are a leading contender, do not blow it over Giada!

In the break Giada tells Yvan his culinary POV should not be “small plates” but “family style” since he is so close to his family. And there it is, Yvan will not be the next Food Network Star. He does not understand “family style” but apparently there is no market for a “small plates” show but there is for “family style” so now he either has to get enthusiastic about something he does not know or he will be out! This is when this show makes me angry! They knew what his c-POV was coming in, tell him you do not like it and find something else, but do not force him into something he does not know! They better not tell him to cook Venezuelan food!

They tell Team Alton they did the best, and Justin was perfect. I am still dubious about those cookies, and I still did not hear a tip! But he was the most entertaining presentation. I suspect they see him as the next Alton Brown.

Still, someone from that team gets nominated to lose, and it is Martie. Her smores were too simple and her presentation was not very good. Josh is the one from Team Giada for his scattered talk and his ambitious but not-good dish, “it did not succeed but you tried.” And from Bobby, we have Nikki, who Susie does not know enough about even at this point to even help her. Hey, I picked the Loser Slate!

The Producer challenge is a question from the website: what can you make without an outdoor grill? Hey, Alton Brown taught me to make ribs in the oven and I still use his technique! But it takes an overnight marinade and three hours so I guess they will do something else. The idea is to use grill pans, which segues the whole FN lineup into Grill Week (which starts at 10:30), how tidy is that! It is like Palm Sunday where the service starts with triumphant joy and ends with somber reflection. Except not so religious.

Josh makes frikadeller, which are Danish meatballs, sort of like flat elongated Swedish meatballs. When I think grill, I do not think meatballs, but that is me! Then he adds sunomono, Japanese pickles. You know, I bet there are not a lot of people sitting out in TV land who have been saying, “What we really need is more Danish-Japanese fusion cooking shows!” But I found this dish to be the most interesting, since it is all new to me! It does not quite make sense, pickles and meatballs, but I do not have to eat it! His presentation is again pretty rough. Susie tells him he does a good job of describing the obvious but gave no information on what was in the meatball. Giada finally saw his point of view: combining his Danish heritage with his passion for Asian food (and then she cried… no, not on camera, but you know she did, while counting on the fingers of one hand the potential market for this point of view – and I would be one!).

Martie makes tequila lime tuna, and Alton is telling her exactly how to cook it, to get the air out of the marinade bag, to coat it completely, to use two grill pans to speed things up. If Martie needs cooking lessons, should she have a Food Network show? When she does her on-camera thing the microphone cord gets caught in the grill pan and she makes a joke of it, she does it very well actually: Susie says she makes an accident adorable; I would not go that far. But there was little food information (because Alton talked her through it). Bob likes her camera presence. Nobody likes the dish. Ooopsie, Alton!

Nikki makes hangar steak and grabs the Liquid Smoke. Every time I use Liquid Smoke, I taste nothing but bitterness. Even if I use a single drop in a pound of hamburger with ketchup and other flavors, it is just too much! But maybe it is me, I am like that with rosemary too. She puts a packet of wood chips in the pot with her vegetables. Her talk starts out with “Are you ready for some Girl on Grill action?” which is the line that made Bobby fall in love with her, but Bob is not amused. Still, he says she went from forgettable to contender. I do not see it really. They like her food, and Bobby says it feels like an outdoor dish. She is declared Safe!

So it is between Martie and Josh. Who do you think has a shot: the next Paula Deen, or the Danish-Asian fusion king? No surprise, Josh is out, and that is fair because he has not made anything really good so far, and his camera presence has been uniformly nervous and halting. He vows to continue his mission of fusing Asian and European food! Good luck with that!

I have to confess I am enjoying the new format! But I am still angry about the whole forced culinary-point-of-view issue. So far they focused Justin into “Culinary Rebel with a Cause” which is really just a rephrasing of his shtick, but now they have Yvan having to adapt to a whole new style, and they have shot down Nikki and her Girl on Grill, though that may just be another rewording thing, she can still specialize in grilling if her show does not sound like a porn description. I thought it was cute myself! But I am the one who wants to see more Danish cooking! I still remember Madison and his Danish Christmas potatoes!

Next week: Ted Allen finally shows up – they were saving him for Fashion Week!

Sunday with Zin: and Italo Calvino – Six Memos for the New Millennium, part V: Multiplicity

"Multiplicity" - Jeffrey Bolinger, Kinley Puzey, Lance Seeman, Kevin Thibault

“Multiplicity” – Jeffrey Bolinger, Kinley Puzey, Lance Seeman, Kevin Thibault

[T]he subject of my lecture… is the contemporary novel as an encyclopedia, as a method of knowledge, and above all as a network of connections between the events, the people, and the things of the world….
Who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.

Hello, I am Zin, and I have taken more liberties than usual with the text above! It is taken from the beginning and end of the fifth Memo, the final one we have to study. I wanted to include a third piece, but I did not feel I could get away with it – so I will include it here as it too is an overall statement of purpose for this memo, for all the Memos:

Among the values I would like passed on to the next millennium, there is this above all: a literature that has absorbed the taste for mental orderliness and exactitude, the intelligence of poetry, but at the same time that of science and of philosophy:

Calvino approaches his explanation of literature-as-encyclopedia by means of several different works which all have different characteristics but still fit in this category. First he starts with That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda, an engineer who loved philosophy. He presents the world as a tangled knot to be untied, but this novel, in essence a detective novel, is “left without a solution”! How strange is that! But he loved the unfinished

Then we move to Robert Musil, also an engineer, who played with the tension between the mathematical and precise, and the human and chaotic! I am enjoying all these technical people who write, it is that same thing about exercising opposing muscles maybe. And this he has in common with Gadda: ”their inability to find an ending.”

And of course as soon as you hear the term “encyclopedic novel” you know Proust is around the corner!

Not even Marcel Proust managed to put an end to his encyclopedic novel, though not for lack of design, since the idea for the book came to him all at once, the beginning and end and the general outline. The reason was that the work grew denser and denser from the inside through its own organic vitality. The network that links all things is also Proust’s theme, but in him this net is composed of points in space-time occupied in succession by everyone, which brings about an infinite multiplication of the dimensions of space and time. The world expands until it can no longer be grasped, and knowledge, for Proust, is attained by suffering this intangibility. In this sense a typical experience of knowledge is the jealousy felt by the narrator for Albertine.

How interesting, this suggestion that multiplicity is not easy to wrap up, it keeps going, expanding outward and inward, creating more and more, however the author approaches it! These would never go over well in a world where sitcoms have a half-hour to wrap up all the loose ends and leave everyone happy – but I wonder if someone on the writing staff of The Sopranos read this Memo! And by the way, while pop music lives for the final “money note” jazz often leaves things on 7ths and diminished 9ths and weird chords that hint at more to come! And for that matter atonal music does not have a “home” to end on! Which is probably why most people hate it!

Oh, I must mention the Borges piece, “The Garden of Forking Paths” – “which is presented as a spy story and includes a totally logico-metaphysical story, which in turn contains the description of an endless Chinese novel—and all this concentrated into a dozen pages.” I have not read it – I must! – because Calvino explains this story brings in parallel universes:

the very reason why the protagonist feels authorized to carry out the absurd and abominable crime imposed on him by his spy mission, perfectly sure that this happens only in one of the universes but not in the others; and indeed that, if he commits this crime here and now, in other universes he and his victim will be able to hail each other as friends and brothers.

How wonderful! To think that in some other universe, I am not sitting here wondering where I went wrong!

Calvino goes through many other authors – Flaubert, Valery, with mentions of Joyce and Eliot – but I was taken by a couple of other descriptions of authors completely unfamiliar to me:

There is such a thing as the unified text that is written as the expression of a single voice, but that reveals itself as open to interpretation on several levels. Here the prize for an inventive tour-de-force goes to Alfred Jarry for Uamour absolu (1899), a fifty-page novel that can be read as three completely different stories: (1) the vigil of a condemned man in his cell the night before his execution; (2) the monologue of a man suffering from insomnia, who when half asleep dreams that he has been condemned to death; (3) the story of Christ.

Another multiplicity! This time more vertical than horizontal – the multiplicity is in the possibility of interpretations of a very short novel, what would probably be classified as a novella, rather than an encyclopedic novel!

I was likewise intrigued by his discussion of La vie mode d’emploi (Life, Directions for Use) by Georges Perec. I will not try to copy it here, go read it in the online memo, it is pretty amazing, an apartment building, the kind of careful precision of who is on what floor and what goes on in time, a schedule of themes, and guess what! “This ultra-completed book has an intentional loophole left for incompleteness” – it too is not finished! Because guess what, the universe, life, is not finished! I was pleased to note the mention of Oulipo here: it has been conspicuously absent but this is the place to bring it in!

Oulipo is short for “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle,” or “workshop of potential literature.” Some day I will do some posts about it maybe, but for right now I will just say it is about finding new structures and using them as creative inspiration – that is right, structure, restrictions, rules, as inspirations! Because it can get very messy if you do not know what you are doing! But here is that pull between two opposites again, restrictions and freedom, and now we are learning that rules and restrictions can be used to create freedom! Sam Cooney conveys this really well in his post about the Memos on The Rumpus:

Multiplicity works through the abiding of rules. Rules give one boundaries to work in, a set space, even if the space is to be thought of as infinite. Sartre said that writing, properly employed, can be a powerful means of liberating the reader from all kinds of alienation, and by this process, the writer also frees their own self and overcomes their own alienation. Like a system of poetry – a system that could be deemed artificial and mechanical – rules can produce inexhaustible freedom and wealth of invention. And like a single deadline can work as the major driving force for a writer, a large array of directives act as stimulation, as ongoing spurs.

And now I go back to “Millennium House” by Richard Osgood, where I began this Study and ended up each Memo. First, the restrictions of Flash are part of the territory, part of what Richard and other flash writers love. Then, the paragraph describing the house brings in a mini-encyclopedia of images and references to times and places and experiences! The juxtaposition of “part fire code and part free will” still gives me goosebumps! Nothing is more regulated and formal than fire code, and nothing symbolizes chaos like free will! The flash is not unfinished by any means, but there is a definite sense of continuation, ending with a leap into the air! And Richard is, no surprise, an architect, that blend of science and art that balances stresses and tolerances with lines and arcs and creates a combination of the practical and the aesthetic! I keep finding architects in my search for art and comments on these Memos! Like with the art above, which was created as part of an architecture course!

I will be reading some Calvino fiction shortly – probably If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, I am too intimidated by Invisible Cities – but I have another project (hello, Jeanne!) scheduled next!

And I will end the Memos study with this:

Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function.

Maile Meloy: “The Proxy Marriage” from The New Yorker, 5/21/12

Finally, he started working again. Without Bridey to hope for, he felt that he was living in a timeless universe. It was a peculiarly freeing state. He didn’t worry about whether the music he was writing was good or bad. Sometimes he seemed only to be channelling it. He thought about Bridey’s mother’s psychic, calling up past lives, and wondered if the music was coming from somewhere else. Sometimes he knew that he was actively composing—thinking about what a bassoon could do, how long a note could be sustained, how long dissonance could be tolerated before it had to resolve into something sweet. But even then he felt cut loose from his critical sense. He was making something, and it gave him pleasure, and it didn’t matter if it ever left his apartment, or if he ever left his apartment. As long as he never went out, there was no crashing self-consciousness, no awareness of the outside world.

I’d never heard of proxy marriage before reading this story. There was that episode of M*A*S*H where Klinger married his childhood sweetheart by shortwave radio (she later divorced him, having never spent a single minute in the same hemisphere) but I never thought it could actually happen that way. Meloy discusses her use of this and how it came about in her interview.

The story (which is available online) follows Bridey (named after Bridey Murphy) and William (secretly in love with her) from the end of high school into their early careers, as their lives weave around each other. Bridey’s father performs occasional proxy marriages for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the two kids serve as the proxies.

He thought he would be either a pianist or a physicist, although he didn’t know anyone in Montana who did those things professionally….But William could imagine another kind of life.

I found this particularly important to me, given my reaction to Wendell Berry’s story a few days ago. Bridey – “confident, even a little vain, and she was good at school, except for math, which didn’t interest her” – has boyfriends, and William pines for her but never asks her out or indicates any interest beyond friendship. They go off to school, both to study music, and keep in touch as friends, returning home at intervals, and, once in a while, serving in proxy weddings. William changes from performance to composition, and Bridey finds out she’s too old for her face – that she’s just not pretty enough to be a performer, just like her mother said.

They fall out of touch for a while, and William discovers to his dismay that Bridey has married, leading to the scene quoted above. I like the use of music as a metaphor for the relationship. I love the relationship William has with girlfriend Gillian, an ambitious oboist hoping for an opening in a Tampa symphony:

…he realized that he wouldn’t go to Tampa if an oboist dropped dead and Gillian got the job. He wondered if this was how other people plumbed the secrets of their own hearts, with tests like “Will you go to Tampa?”

The whole story is predicated on the wars, since that necessitates the proxy marriages in the first place. After Abu Ghraib is exposed, Bridey’s father refuses to perform further ceremonies.

William thought there must be a long compound German word for the way that large events in the world could affect your personal life; the scale was reduced to the point of insignificance, but the everyday effect was amplified.

I won’t reveal the resolution, but with stories of unrequited love there are only two possibilities.

What struck me about this story more than anything else was timing. I typically use the story art, rather than cover art, but I made an exception because I don’t think it’s an accident this story appeared in this issue; and I think it makes an interesting statement.

Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 4

Paul Felton's #1 Type Heresy

Paul Felton’s #1 Type Heresy

We’re done with sagging now; it’s all party from here on out.

Chapter 18: Breaking the Rules
In most human enterprises, there’s a conflict between craft and creativity, between minding the rules and pushing the envelope. In most things, the mantra is: you have to know the rules to know when and how to break them. That’s where progress comes from, after all. Paul Felton crystallizes how this phenomenon affects the typographical world with his twin-book, The Ten Commandments of Typography (“Thou shalt not apply more than three typefaces in a document”) which flips over to reveal Type Heresy, a graphic rendition of how to break the rules by the Fallen Angel of Typography, including the image above as Heresy #1. Another book I just have to get.

fontbreak: The Interrobang
The combination question mark and exclamation point, proposed in the 60s by ad exec Martin Spekter, was offered on a few IBM and Remington typewriters, and exists in Wingdings but it never caught on. Garfield speculates: do people just like typing all those symbols to emphasize astonishment!?!?!?! It does feel satisfying somehow, even if you edit them out later. He speculates on punctuation’s resistance to change.

Chapter 19: The Serif of Liverpool
If you’re a fan of “popular” music (or just cover art) this chapter alone is worth the price of the book. And it could keep you busy for hours, looking for yourself to find Bootle, the font, complete with dropped “T”m modelled after the logo used by the early Beatles. Maybe you’d prefer Floydian, the scrawl from The Wall. Or I Blame Coco, derived from Coco Sumner’s handwriting as used on her album of that name. Songs have been sung about fonts: “Boring Arial Layout” by The Grace Notes seems to contain only the lyric “That’s me, I’m so famous!” “German Bold Italic” by Japanese singer Towa Tei and Australian Kylie Minogue doesn’t really make sense (“I am a typeface…I can compliment you well Especially in red Extremely in Green…I fit like a glove”) but I think it’s just supposed to be strange, which is fine. I’m reading a book about fonts, for god’s sake, I’m down with strange.
Returning the focus to type, we learn about the work of Peter Saville (New Order, as well as Kate Moss and Dior). For a grand finale, the creator of the Rolling Stone masthead (as well as Doobie Brothers album covers and former Hallmark card font designer) Jim Parkinson gets his nod.

Fontbreak: Vendome
Because: “Sometimes you just need a type that says Pleasure, possibly in French.”

Chapter 20: Fox, Gloves
Someone actually shot a video of a quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog, but that phrase has become passé as a font display. Others with all letters of the alphabet, such as “Quick wafting zephyrs vex bold Jim” and “Zany Eskimo craves fixed job with quilting party” never achieved widespread use. Besides, they’re all too long when new fonts are released every day. The current rage is “Handgloves” or “Hamburgerfont” – there is a method to this, since some letters better show the differences between fonts than others. But FontShop has a better idea: for email updates, why not choose a word that fits the use of the font? Alas, their online site uses “Handgloves” but I do wish I could find the best example of all, if most cynical: the words “Removes unwanted hair” demonstrating the Chernobyl font.

Chapter 21: The Worst Fonts in the World
See this video: Trajan is the Movie Font. That doesn’t make it a bad font – it’s lovely – just overused. The idea of “worst font” could include many things – the inane, like Comic Sans, or the gross, like Grassy, “a type with hair” (let it be noted it won Linotype’s design contest in 1999). But Garfield has his own definitive list:
#8: Ecofont, the well-meaning, ink-saving font. It’s not so much a font as a process that puts holes in Arial, Verdana, et al. “and prints them as if they had been attacked by moths.” It is, however, available free.
#7: Souvenir, “A sort of Saturday Night Fever typeface wearing tight white flared pants” says Mark Batty (whose ITC owns the font) of the font that graced the BeeGees albums (and Playboy) in the 70s. Peter Guy of the Folio Society is blunt: “A souvenir of every ghastly mistake ever made in type design gathered together – with a few never thought of before.” I’m not sure why – I think it’s pretty. I’ve always said I have no eye for art.
#6: Gill Sans Light Shadowed. “…it will soon induce headaches.” I agree.
#5: Brush Script.I think everyone with Word has tried to use this at one time or another, but it never really works. I regret to say that my beloved city library uses this as a headline for event promotions. Garfield’s complaint is that it’s phony. All printing is imitating handwriting, so what? I just think it’s too squat. Here’s the pay dirt, though: you can get a font of your own handwriting, or anyone’s handwriting for that matter, at, for $9 (you do need a scanner).
#4: Papyrus, another ok but seriously overused font. But you can fight back: website Papyrus Watch “sets out to document and expose the overuse of the Papyrus font.” [tiny whisper: I happen to like it, and I don’t see anything Egyptian about it, other than that’s how it’s used by fifth graders writing reports. But it’s so cool that fifth graders are using computers – and fonts! – says one who thought the Flair felttip was innovative technology]
#3: Neuland Inline “says Africa in the way Papyrus says Egypt.” Meaning, it says “stereotype.” Again, I don’t see anything particularly African about it (I’m not even sure what an African font would look like; Africa is a big, diverse place), other than its now-permanent association with The Lion King.
#2: Ransom Note: This isn’t so much a font as a category; many similar fonts use the torn-out-of-a-magazine-and-pasted-together style: “the names are often better than the type.” Very true: my personal favorite is Got Heroin?
#1: And the Worst Font in the World (if you ever saw either of Keith Olbermann’s news shows, you’d hear the echo in your head): the 2012 Olympic Font known as 2012 Headline. The logo is bad enough – “some detected Lisa Simpson having sex, others a swastika” – but the font “is based on jaggedness and crudeness, not usually considered attributes where sport is concerned.” And of course, there’s that stereotypical thing again,the nod to Greece, “the sort of lettering you will find at London kebob shops and restaurants called Dionysus.”

My own font faux pas: About a decade ago, one of my more interesting if less frequent work duties was the writing and pre-production of a client newsletter. One month I did some work on it at home, and emailed the result to the office, where my boss intercepted it. Somehow, his computer changed the headline font to a hideous thing (I thought it was called Dancin’ but no, it was much worse, more like Party Mush). I didn’t even bother to explain that it was Century Schoolbook (or some such thing, maybe Garamond or Georgia or Calisto or Perpetua, I’m fond of serifs, though Verdana has its moments) when it left my home computer. From then on I used what I knew worked across platforms. It may be boring, but it doesn’t make a fool of me.

My personal Microsoft Word (circa 2000) least favorite list? Blackladder ITC and Gigi. Most of the scripts, really (except Lucida Calligraphy, which I sometimes use in condensed form for my name on stationery header). And the goofy things like Curlz and Jokerman, though they might have some use, in extremely small quantities, in some applications.

I’m saving the last chapter for next week. I’m having such a good time, I don’t want this to be over. For those of you wondering if I’ve lost my mind – long ago, but this phase is almost over.

Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 3

Art by Tom Gabor

Art by Tom Gabor

Just like people, many books sag in the middle. That isn’t to say the group of chapters here is boring; I was still fascinated. But in some of them, there is less of a “fun” factor, and readers who aren’t generally interested in printing and typography might wonder where the magic has gone. Don’t worry – it comes back, in spades. But there’s still interesting stuff to discover here.

As an incentive – just today I got “I Shot the Serif (but I did not shoot the san serif)” game (unrelated to the image above, which is also fun; you can it, or variations, on a t-shirt) in my feed from the NYT’s newly named “Page-Turner” blog.

And now back to our scheduled book:

Chapter 6: The Ampersand’s Final Twist
Caslon, then Garamond, created what many consider to be the finest examples of ampersands, the typographical character even the most staid designers get a little wild with. You can get Caslon’s on a t-shirt (oh, how I want one). In 2010, the Society of Typographic Aficionados released “Coming Together“, a digital font of over 400 different ampersands to raise money for victims of the Haitian earthquake. They did something similar with Japanese characters in 2011 for the Japanese tsunami relief. Typographic Aficionados care.

Chapter 7: Baskerville is Dead (Long Live Baskerville)

…it has one one attribute that makes it infallibly recognizable and timelessly stunning – the upper-case Q. This has a tail extending well beyond its body width…The lower-case g is also a classic with its curled ear and its lower blowl left unclosed, as if all the ink was being saved for that Q.

In spite of Benjamin Franklin’s support, Baskerville never enjoyed much success during his life. But all things come to those who wait: his font was one of the five initially available on the iPad. And it’s a beautiful Q.

Font Break: Mrs Eaves & Mr Eaves
Baskerville may have missed out during his lifetime because of social disapproval: his wife came to him first as a housekeeper after her husband abandoned her and her five children. When things turned romantic, they couldn’t marry until the absent husband died. In honor of this sad and romantic tale, Zuzana Licko used the name Mrs Eaves for her 1996 update of Baskerville. And Australian artist Gemma O’Brien took the name Mrs Eaves for her “Write Here, Write Now” video project to support creation of open-graffiti zones as places of self-expression.

Chapter 8: Tunnel Visions
Even if you live in a city with a subway system, you may never consider that thought went into the signs used. First was the London Underground. During WWI, Edward Johnston – friend of Evelyn Waugh, teacher to Edward Gill – created the first modern sans and the first created for random public(as opposed to academic) use.

In the lower case the key letter was the o, whose counter (the internal white space) he created equal to twice its stem width, thus giving it “ideal mass-and-clearance.” His most distinctive letter was the lower-case i, which had an upturned boot…. The most beautiful was the i, on which Johnston placed a diamond-shaped dot that still brings a smile today.

But that was 1916, and of course things change. In 1979 Eiichi Kono was brought in to update the Underground font: “when he came to present his work for the first time he displayed his vaious New Johnston fonts with just one word: ‘Underglound.'” Now there’s a man with a misch sense of humor.

Chapter 9: What is it about the Swiss?
It’s the title character in a movie and the sole subject of a book. Type designer Cyril Highsmith tried to avoid it for one New York day and couldn’t travel, eat, shop, or get dressed, without great difficulty. Bloomingdales, Jeep, Gap, American Airlines, Panasonic, North Face, Toyota, Nestle, Verizon – and countless other companies – stake their corporate images on it. Only on the French Metro has it failed.
Oh, Helvetica:

…it’s Swiss heritage laying a backdrop of impartiality, neutrality and freshness….The font also manages to convey honesty and trust…a friendly homeliness….designed with some wit, and certainly with the human hand….the inner white shapes serve as a form guide to the black around them, an aspect that one designer called ‘a locked-in rightness”.…..[the lowercase] a has a slightly pregnant teardrop belly and a tail… the t a nd j have square dots….[The capital] G has both a horizontal and vertical bar at a right angle, Q has a short straight angled cross-line like a cigarette in an ashtray, and R has a little kicker for its right leg.

But Helvetica is not just one font: it is a typeface family, Helvetica Neue by Linotype, and contains over 50 fonts from Ultra-Light Italic to Black Condensed Oblique. How is the amateur to tell? The most telling distinction seems to be “horizontally cut finals” particularly on the c and s. It’s the sort of thing I never noticed before, but will always see from now on.
This feature also applies to Univers by Swiss-born Adrian Frutiger, which marked a new era: “the point when the design of type moved from something performed primarily with the eye through the hand, to something that resulted from science….Men in labcoats and clipboards were now defining our alphabet – a long way from ‘gutenberg, Caslon, or Baskerville.” It’s such an interesting point, I’ll resist trying to imagine men in clipboards.

Fontbreak: Frutiger
Though the successor to Univers (a little more relaxed, less mathematical, with some quirks that are simply pleasing to the eye) is the focus, it’s really an excuse to discuss use of fonts on sports jerseys around the world – an issue that most likely has never crossed anyone’s mind before, except the people who decide what players will wear. Germans use something like Serpentine, the French Optima, and those crazy Argentines go Bauhaus. Don’t you just love it?

Chapter 10: Road Akzidenz
This chapter would have been a lot more interesting if I knew more about English roadways, though it does end in New York City. The takeaway for me: only Germans would design a font named Grotesk Akzidenz for road signs.

Chapter 11: DIY
My cheeks hurt from smiling when I got to the end of this chapter. I remember the toy printing press my brother and I used to churn out a newspaper. “Just the mention of it may send a grown man to Ebay” – or a grown woman, who’ll find a Superior Cub for $9.00. And Letraset – oh, the agonies, one letter would get stuck halfway down the stem and break off, or something would be crooked. I’ve never had the eye for lettering: spacing matters.

Chapter 12: What the Font?
So you want a reference book of fonts listed alphabetically by name? Try 1953 Encyclopedia of Typefaces (the next chapter will bring in Fontshop’s more recent Fontbook). Say, though, you want to identify a font, maybe the lowercase “g” on the cover of the Encyclopedia – Rookledge’s Classic International Typefinder might be more helpful, listing fonts by characteristics such as a sloping e-bar. Or you can go digital and try WhatTheFont, an iPhone app. The author found that highly unreliable, and turned to the Forum which was far more helpful (odd, since MyFonts makes the iPhone app; but in a forum, you have all kinds of crazy people with nothing better to do than flaunt their arcane knowledge; that’s how Dan Rather got fired, IIRC).
Would it surprise you to find out I spent a couple of days fooling around with this stuff, trying to identify fonts on everything from prescription bottles to clothing tags? Hey, I don’t laugh at your hobbies (I found Identifont to be very helpful)! And now maybe you understand why I’ve been discussing fewer short stories lately. And by the way, Eyehawk at the MyFonts forum had an answer for Garfield: the “g” on the cover of the 1953 Encyclopedia within minutes: “Font identified as ACaslon Pro-Regular. Case marked solved.” I love geeks of all stripes.

Chapter 13: Can a Font Be German, or Jewish?
Erik Spiekermann, co-founder of FontShop, is an authority on type. He’d have to be, since his FontBook contains 100,000 fonts, including things that will never show up on a PC, like Stoned, Elliott’s Blue Eyeshadow, and Monster Droppings. And he has his own interpretation of a little-known facet of the Third Reich. Up until 1941, roman type was in the same category as modern art and music: degenerate. Only gothic script would do. Then there was a change, as gothic type was labeled Jewish; now roman type was required. Spiekermann’s explanation? The elaborate blackletter script was barely legible outside Germany. And the Reich was running out of typeface; French and Dutch foundries didn’t have much, since they hardly used it. But what I’ll take away from this chapter (besides Monster Droppings) is the 1933 arrest of Paul Renner, designer of Futura, for being “too sympathetic towards roman types” in his college lectures. But he did have the last word: in the next Fontbreak, we discover Futura was used for the plaque left on the moon in July, 1969 by Appollo 11.

Chapter 14: American Scottish
American type didn’t start until 1790 with Binny & Ronaldson, two gents of Scottish descent who broke away from the previous English monopoly on type used here (the Declaration of Independence, for example, was printed in Caslon) with Monticello. But the “most enduring” American font is Franklin Gothic, named after Benjamin Franklin: “Things ‘All-American’ have a habit of using Franklin Gothic to press their case, be it the titles on the Rocky films or the block capitals on Lady Gaga’s album The Fame Monster.'” I find these examples of All-American-ness hilarious. Frederick Goudy was our premier type designer: “one of those rare things – a prolific type designer with a penchant for the jazz life.” So prolific, his fonts were used by William Barrett to create “My Type of People” – a series of graphic representations of various people made up entirely of Goudy-created typographic characters.

Fontbreak: Moderns, Egyptians and Fat Faces
As technology developed in the eighteenth century, the Moderns emerged: fonts with more extremes of thick and thin strokes, and more delicate serifs, such as Bodini. Then fonts went in the opposite direction, with Fat Face and Egyptians.

Chapter 15: Gotham is Go
In 2000, Tobias Frere-Jones of Hoefler and Frere-Jones designed a new typeface for GQ, based on the sign over the entrance of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. In 2004, it was used for the cornerstone of the in-progress Freedom Towers at Ground Zero. Is it coincidence the Obama campaign decided to use it in 2008? Maybe – they started with Gill Sans, but found more variations with Gotham. For the record, the McCain campaign used Optima, the same font as used on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And oh, by the way, Sarah Palin adopted Gotham for SarahPac. Politics, and fonts, make strange bedfellows.

And finally there is the ultimate tribute, that point when you know your typeface has really joined the pantheon of the greats. This is the point where people decide not to pay for it.

Chapter 16: Pirates and Clones
It ain’t easy being a type designer. The simplest typeface can consist of 600 characters – the alphabet, plus numerals, punctuation, accents, and special characters, in multiple varieties (bold and italic at the very least) and a comprehensive one far more. Obviously this is easier in the digital age than it was when each character was punchcut and molded, then produced in metal or wood, but it’s still an investment. Max Miedinger designed Helvetica, one of the most used fonts in the world, was “virtually penniless” at the time of his death because the company, Stempel, got the royalties, while he was paid a fee for services rendered back in the day. And piracy isn’t only about movies. Microsoft’s Arial is regarded by type designers as a ripoff of Helvetica – a situation played for humor in this CollegeHumor video, “FontFight“); though it looks different, it fits the same grid and was designed to be swapped in for the more expensive-to-license font. Lawsuits have historically been unsuccessful; just ask Hermann Zapf, creator of Zapf Dingbats (subject of another hilarious CollegeHumor video, Font Conference) who pushed for greater protection as early as 1974. And piracy isn’t always done with malice: the French agency conducting an anti-piracy campaign released their materials in what turned out to be a pirated font.

Chapter 17: The Clamour from the Past
Sue Shaw oversees the Type Archive in London, a collection of typeface from the past from 1500 to the dawn of the digital age:

…all the 23,000 drawers of metal punches and matrices, hundreds of fonts in every size, all the flat-bed presses, all 600,000 copper letter patterns. All the keyboards and casting machines setting hot metal type, all the woodletter type collections and machines from the DeLilttle company in York, all the steel history from Sheffield, all the hundredweights of artefacts that made the great libraries of the world. This is where it ended up when computers arrived. All quiet now….
The names of other fonts may be found elsewhere in the archive in the bound records of Stephenson Blake, Britain’s oldest and longest surviving typefounder in Sheffield and London – or it was until it shut for good in 2004 and sold the Sheffield site to be made into flats. In its heyday,which covered 1830 to 1970, it swallowed up the punches and matrices of the vast majority of British typefoundries, streching back to John Day in the sixteenth century, and encompassing hallowed designs and equipment….. Stephenson Blake manufactured typefaces for the world, and the names are regal, distant, and grand…They even had a precursor of Comic Sans: Ribbonface Typewriter, created in 1894.

Ozymandias springs to mind: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, this storage awaits you, some day.
And where is this treasury of type, printing machinery, and historical documentation housed? In a stone fortress with a marble façade? A modern glass and steel tower? No, it’s in an abandoned horse hospital.
The chapter also covers the rise of Monotype and Linotype, from automated typesetting to digital composition. There’s a palpable sense of history in the description of White Books, who publish only eight classic titles but treat each one with care; and the disappearance of the font notation from the title page of most modern books. That’s what charmed me most about Pear Noir!, you know: a little blurb about the Garamond type they used in issue 4 (where Zin was featured). And Rabbit Catastrophe, which not only names the type but hand-makes their journals. These may not be the most august literary journals around, but they are doing things worth doing.

Fontbreak: Sabon
It’s the font used for the main chapters of the book (not the Fontbreaks), and is considered one of the most readable book fonts.

And next time, things start getting a little wacky again…as if Monster Droppings and those College Humor videos aren’t wacky enough.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Wendell Berry, “Nothing Living Lives Alone” from Threepenny Review, Spring 2011

Such settled and decided people are parts of the world, as the unresting, never-satisfied seekers of something better can never be.

Full disclosure: Wendell Berry annoys me (for a ludicrously unfair reason based on old hearsay: I was told he once made a comment to someone I knew that seemed unnecessarily arrogant and imperious), so I came into this an attitude, which the story itself did nothing to dislodge. I have put a lot of effort into seeing the story honestly and without my own filter; I do not think I have been successful.

He admits in his Contributor Notes that it “seems to me to impose some strain on the term story.” I’m ok with that; some non-story stories work for me, others don’t; the failure for me isn’t in the lack of story-ness but in other things. It’s mostly polemic, and hey, that’s what a lot of The Jungle and Magic Mountain is too, back before nonstop narrative forward motion was the order of the day. Jess Row, Seth Fried – some of my favorite recent fiction leans towards polemic, though there’s usually a character involved.

Thing is – I’m in the odd position of basically agreeing with many of his conclusions, and feeling annoyed by them at the same time.

Berry has used the character of Andy Catlett before: a young boy growing up on Kentucky farm during WWII. Here, he uses third person present to describe a reminiscence, lending what is a kind of distance and evaluative quality to Andy’s recounting of his story: “As he looks back across many years from his old age to his childhood, it seems to him….” The narration is a story of a man looking back, one level removed from the looking back, and two removed from the events. Much of it seems like the narrator’s interpretation of Andy’s life, lending the polemic feel.

The main themes are freedom, work, and “being in the world” which is a kind of naturalistic non-industrialized existence:

Andy felt himself in the presence of the world itself; in the world’s native silence as yet only rarely disturbed by the sound of a machine, its darkness after bedtime unbroken by human light, its daylight as yet unsmudged, its springs and streams still drinkable. It was a creaturely world, substantial and alive… In those days he simply lived in it and loved it without premonition. Eventually, seeing it as it would become, he would remember with sorrow how it had been.

His grandparents go back to Civil War times:

For most of their lives the country had been powered almost entirely by the bodily strength of people and of horses and mules, and the people had been dependent for their lives mostly on the country and on their own knowledge and skills.

Andy aspires, even as a small child, to be capable of doing “real” work, not just bringing water to the men who are doing such work:

Andy learned there was a difference between good and bad work, and that good work was worthy, even that it was expected, even of him.He wanted to work, to work well, to be a good hand, long before he was capable. By the time he became more or less capable of work, he had become capable also of laziness. Because he knew about work, he knew about laziness.

He admires the Brightleafs, who are tobacco farmers, the most skilled and hard-working of farmers. And in a lovely turn of phrase, he describes freedom as “an interval with responsibilities at either end.” He sees, in contrast to the modern world, a time and place when people were what they were and didn’t worry about being something else:

It’s chief quality can be suggested by the absence from it of a vocabulary that in the last half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first would become dominant in the minds of nearly everybody. Nobody then and there was speaking of “alternatives” or “alternative lifestyles,” of “technology” or “technological progress,” of “mobility” or “upward mobility.” …. People did not call themselves, even to themselves, “just a farmer” or “just a housewife.” It required talk of an infinitude of choices endlessly available to everybody, essentially sales talk, to embitter the work of husbandry and wifery, to suggest the possibility always elsewhere of something better, and to make people long to give up whatever they had for the promise of something they might have – at whatever cost, at whatever loss.

Here’s where I have those conflicting feelings. I’ve long ranted against the “just a…” sentence. But do choices necessarily poison the status quo? I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, by Charles Du Bos, a Frenchman of roughly the same era as Andy’s grandparents: “The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.” Aren’t dreams, aspirations, good things? Isn’t Andy’s aspiration to work an example? Wouldn’t we all be living in caves and dying of impacted wisdom teeth or bear attacks in our 20s if we didn’t think, “Maybe I can do better”?

Which leads to the whole question of industrialization. Running water is a good thing; I love the internet. When the narrator (at most points I’m assuming the narrator is Andy in his older years, but it reads more like authorial intrusion) wonders: “Suppose we had refused to countenance the industrialization of everything from agriculture to medicine to education to religion” I wonder if we can balance out progress and depersonalization, or if without agribusiness and HMOs there could be no WorldWideWeb.

The three-part piece ends with an actual narrative of Andy in one of his brackets of freedom climbing a tree to unsuccessfully chase a squirrel, who leaps easily from limbtip to limbtip to outmaneuver the boy:

What would stay with him would not be his frustration, his failure to catch the squirrel, but the beauty of it and its aerial life, and of his aerial life while he tried to catch it….He had not wondered how, if he had caught the squirrel, he would have made his way back to the ground. It would take him several days to get around to thinking of that. The heights of that afternoon he had achieved as a quadruped. From where he had got to he could not have climbed down with his two feet and only one hand. If he had caught the squirrel, he would have had to turn it loose.

This serves as an effective metaphor for the industrialization theme: now that everything is mechanized, industrialized, and efficient, can we handle it? Or do we have to let it go to get down from the damned tree?

Something occurred to me as I was working on this post: I wondered if the piece is meant to be ironic, like “The Road Not Taken,” which generations of high-school students have been lead to misunderstand. I should think about this a little more before putting it out there, but it seems to me there’s enough irony in the story to allow for that conclusion.
Irony #1:

In his later years Andy Catlett has tried to use appropriate hesitation and care in speaking, in any way particularly personal, of the diminishment of the world. He dislikes hearing old men, including himself, begin sentences with such phrases as “In my day” and “when I was a boy.”

Oh, don’t we all? It’s a kind of in-joke, we all do it. And then of course the narrator proceeds to tell us exactly how and why it was better back then, though he does soften it a bit:

…it was not a time that a person of good sense would consider “going back to.” But that time, to the end of the war and a while after in that part of the world, had certain qualities, certain goodnesses, that might have been cherished and enlarged, but instead were disvalued and discarded as of no worth.

Isn’t that the way with the current world, too, that there are qualities to be cherished and kept? Political correctness might be a joke, but it comes from a well-meaning place and starts people thinking in terms of why they use certain language, why it is offensive to some people, and whether it truly reflects their views. The internet is full of porn, but it’s also full of literature and art and science and connection (though this last can be debated). The narrator misses that dual quality of the present time, so focused he is on the past.
In any case, Andy goes ahead with “When I was a boy” in spite of his awareness of the annoyance value.

There’s also the irony of the Brightleafs admired so for farming tobacco (more disclosure: I’m an ex-smoker). It’s a complex issue for those who grew up in tobacco country, who see their way of life, their family businesses, dissolving. And I think it’s true that historically, smoking was an occasional thing; chain-smoking and two-pack-a-day habits weren’t really part of the landscape until the last half-century, perhaps due to a combination of marketing, the desire for greater and greater profit, and nicotine manipulation by industrialized agribusiness intent on increasing profits. Maybe what I’m reading as irony is really rage, that something as work-and-craft intensive as tobacco farming has been demonized, when tobacco farmers are as much victims as the people on the PSAs with tubes in their throats.

And then there’s the irony that Andy was of the generation that seems to have ruined life, in the view of the narrator. While in his older years he’s telling us, “No one will ever have it as good as I had it” he’s also telling us it was on his watch things went downhill. So why the f- is he scolding me? (Wow, I’m taking this way too personally, y’think? I’ve been kind of pissy towards a lot of stories lately; I seem to be, as they say, “in a mood.”)

But back to irony: no, I don’t think it’s irony. He’s dead serious, and that’s underlined by the earnestness his Contributor Notes:

It belongs to a stretch of new work attempting to deal directly and explicitly with what I see as the paramount change in my time and place: …. Life here has become increasingly mechanical. Machines of various kinds now dominate work and economy, and also the thoughts and aspirations of the people. I would like, as so far as I am able, to understand what is implied by this.

I think I’m looking, through irony, for a way out, a way to not take this story at face value. While I agree with a lot of the negatives of modern life, I resist the notion that it’s a good thing a child born on a farm will not, should not, cannot dream of doing anything but farming. I also see a certain narrowness of focus in this paean to childhood: what about the kids who aren’t sons of farmers? It seems to me we’ve all bought into the myth of the “good old days” but they weren’t so good for some people. And the Industrial Revolution started in the nineteenth century, not the mid-twentieth – there were people already living highly mechanized lives in cities; he seems to feel it only matters when it filters down to his farm.

Maybe it’s as he says: there are things of value in modern life, with all its mechanization, too, which should not be cast off in an attempt to recapture what was good about the past. I’ve seen Food, Inc. – I’m not going to defend agribusiness. But when I go to buy an apple and I have to decide between the Monsanto version or the local, organic variety (when available – buying local in Maine means potatoes and beets six months of the year), it might depend on whether I have four times as much to spend. I can rail about doctors who look at the computer screen instead of the patient, but when your kid has leukemia or your mother has a stroke or you have four of six high-risk factors for breast cancer, chemotherapy and TPA and computer-guided stereotactic biopsies don’t seem like the enemy.

I’m taking this story way too personally to be objective about it. just got my back up early on, triggering extraordinary (even for me) defensiveness. Maybe I’ll just admit it wasn’t my cup of tea and move on.

Food Network Star 2012 Season 8: Episode 2 – “NYC on the Go” (and microrecap of Episode 1)

Art by Scott Hulme

Art by Scott Hulme

Hello, I am Zin! I did not know there was a crisis or I would have done the episode 1 last week! I am almost done with the Calvino Memos and I do not work on them anyway on Sunday or Monday so I will pick up now!

Previously on Episode 1 – Impossible Beginnings: they ripped off Restaurant Wars! Emily makes an astute observation about the teams: Alton has the nerds, Bobby the jocks, and Giada the cheerleaders. I would say: Bobby does, Alton teaches, Giada shows cleavage. And by the way, she should not wear short skirts. And she should eat an avocado and some whole wheat bread. The Bobby team did “Tasting Place” which is a dopey name but they are real cooks so they did well with food so they won and no one had to worry about going home. The Giada people did California cuisine at “Blu,” even though their restaurant was red, and it did not go so well, especially for Josh whose soup was oily, so he was in the bottom. Because he put chili oil in it! And because he did a somersault in their live team introduction and he was not very good at his individual tableside spiel. Team Alton did southern (“Do South”, cute), and again soup did not work: Cristy made a gloppy thick grey puree from black-eyed peas and cabbage which probably tasted as bad as it sounds (and looked). And she got very scoldy when talking about her style, she is FED UP with fat people! Who do you think watches food tv, Cristy? So she was in the bottom for being angry and making lousy food. Cristy and Josh did the Producer Battle and Cristy lost and was eliminated, bye Cristy!

Now, Episode 2!

Answer: what all tourists come to New York for.
The question: Food! At least if you are doing a Food Network show!

The teams have to go to different neighborhoods in New York and learn about an individual food place that represents the ethnicity of that neighborhood, then they have 90 minutes to create a dish for a busload of tourists, AND give a little tour presentation! That is a lot!

Team Bobby gets Harlem, Alton has the Jewish Lower East Side, and the Giada people go to… Little Italy! They are giving Giada a break! Except of course what matters is not what she is most comfy with, but what works for her team!

Team Alton picks their Kosher Experience:

Katz’s Deli is a deli that specializes in pastrami, and parti Marti (no, that is Aarti) wants it! She chats up the store guy but she does most of the talking rather than asking him about his shop and his pastrami! She loves the pastrami, she wants to marry it! See, there you go, one week the President supports gay marriage and the next middle-aged Southern party ladies want to marry pastrami! Bill O’Reilly was right, except substitute pastrami for turtles. I am not sure what Marti makes but it seems like tiny pastrami sandwich canape things. She tells a long story of when she went to Katz’s in the 80s so that is why she wanted that store! Smart! Susie is happy she improved her energy from last week, and Bob likes that she made a party food which is her culinary point of view.

Kossar’s makes bialys, thousands of bialys, which are square bagels with stuff inside instead of a hole. Justin the boy with crabs from Maryland jumps for it. He knows his bialys, he does! I wonder if he has a Jewish grandmother! He makes bialy chips with smoked crème fraiche and caviar, which sounds very Jewish and yum yum but is it really cooking? Bob and Susie like it, so I guess it is. His presentation was good, if odd. I like odd, but I think he is on the edge of uncomfortable odd, not cool odd.

Streit’s does matzo, lots of matzo. Emily from the 50s loves it though I am not sure why, but Alton tells her to get meshuggeneh with it. I am not sure what a retrorad girl from Orlando knows from meshuggeneh, but she is very cute and I like her! She loves the conveyor belt, and decides to use matzo to make 50s meatloaf with all the flavors of Passover, which is a pretty cool idea! Maybe she does know from meshuggeneh! She starts her presentation with the Willy Wonka conveyor belt, but then she gets motion sickness! Wow, that is inconvenient! No one is impressed with her presentation but her food is good. Alton asks what happened and she tells him she thought she would throw up. “That probably would have been bad,” Alton says. Yes, probably.

All that is left are The Pickle Guys and Judson is not feeling it, but he is stuck with it. I guess he never saw Crossing Delancey. The Pickle Guys are the last Pickle Guys in the area, there used to be hundreds! [addendum: no, actually, there used to be 40, but I got carried away and now that I have seen the episode again I wanted to correct it). They specialize in sour pickles. I hate pickles, so they all seem pretty sour to me. Judson makes two slaws. He starts screaming “The Pickle Guys” and makes no sense. Bob is sad his presentation was terrible, since he was so good last week!

Team Bobby does its own Harlem Renaissance:

Sylvia’s is the Most Famous Soul-Food Restaurant in Harlem. Michele the New England Seafood specialist grabs it! I like Michele! She is the most genuine of all these people I think! Here is the problem: the specialty is fried catfish and collard greens, and while Michele loves seafood, she does not like catfish; it tastes muddy (I think there are tricks to overcome that, but yes, it does have a character all its own). She decides to really season the hell out of it to make it palatable in sliders with a side of collard greens (she is excited about the collard greens). On the bus, she tells a story about Sylvia and claims to love catfish which is a violation of “Be Genuine.” Bob is sad she went downhill from last week, and her dish was not very good.

Casablanca Meat Market appeals to Malcolm the soul food specialist. He makes ribs. For presentation he does very well, I think he is expansive and joyous, Bob and Susie love him and his food is great!

Savoy Bakery goes to Eric the Napa chef. It is funny, it is a Harlem bakery owned by an Asian guy and specializing in Danish pastry! That is New York! And this is Eric: he makes his own cheese Danish. From scratch. And it’s good! Last week he made pasta and ricotta for lasagna, this week he makes Danish pastry. And his own caramel sauce. This guy can cook! No way they will give him a show!

Dinosaur BBQ goes to Nikki. They do Texas style bbq so she gets a bottle of Wango Tango sauce. Nikki makes grilled shrimp with the sauce on it. Bob thinks she is smooth but impersonal, and her food was good but her use of the product was pretty lame!

Melba’s is another famous Harlem soul food restaurant and they specialize in Chicken and Eggnog Waffles. Kara is not happy about being the one left with Melba’s (she tries to trade with Nikki for the BBQ but Nikki is no fool) because she does not fry chicken, she does not like chicken on the bone (what?) and she prefers pancakes to waffles. Kara just lost her audience! She must be getting the loser edit, they could not put her on tv after she said that! Who does not like chicken on the bone? It is the preferred way to cook any meat! And she apparently never heard of chicken and waffles because she is baffled. Melba tells her this great story about jazz musicians inventing chicken and waffles and she just ignores it. If they had invented broiled skinless boneless chicken breast and pancakes she might have paid attention. In her presentation she gets verbally tangled between “black” and “African American” and ends up sounding like she thinks a black woman is an exotic sight never before seen. Everyone looks embarrassed! Bob and Susie are not pleased; there is nothing unique about her. I think a cook not liking chicken on the bone is unique!

Team Giada and the Little Italians of Arthur Avenue:
First, a note. Giada is the most oddly proportioned woman I have ever seen. I try not to comment on physicality unless the person makes an issue of it but this is really freaky! It is like the character on Saturday Night Live with the tiny hands, except Giada shrinks as you go from head to toe. Maybe I have just not seen full-body shots of her before (they should stop that), but she is positively emaciated from the waist down while her arms and neck do not have that anorexic look, and her head is enormous! And when she smiles I want to check to see if I still have all my fingers!

Mike’s Deli is famous for hand-pulled mozzarella, and Yvan goes for it. Giada tells him he must use the mozz. He gets a lesson from the owner in pronouncing MOHTZ-a-rrrrrrehhh-llllllllaaaaaah, say it very slowly like the pulling process! Yvan goes for an antipasti skewer of mozz, artichoke, and tomato. Bob thinks he is charming but the dish is too simple. Even Giada worries about his “culinary chops.” Hey, Giada, you are the one who picked people for their stories and their smiles! It is a little late to realize maybe you should have looked for cooking skills!

The Trattoria specializes in Eggplant Parmesan, which suits Ippy, the half-Hawaiian Italian. Or Half-Italian Hawaiian. Giada says he can not make Eggplant Parm because that would be competing not highlighting! He makes pasta fagioli, or pasta fazul if you prefer, with eggplant and mozz. His presentation goes very well, and Giada finds all the eggplant parm flavors in his soup. Yay Ippy! I do not think he will be a Star, but he is a nice underdog!

Cosenza’s Fish Market appeals to Martita, who thinks Italian style ceviche. That is pretty clever! I wrote down that she mispronounced the name of the store (which has paid big bucks, I am sure, to get this promotion) but no one said anything about it so maybe I misheard; I do not remember. Maybe they hoped no one would notice. She does much better in her presentation than last week, and her dish is good.

Peter’s Meat Market specializes in sausages; it goes to Josh, which surprises me. I would think a rock & roll sushi chef would prefer the fish market. Maybe Martita beat him to it. He makes crostini with sausage and peppers, but he is focusing on a good story since he screwed up his presentation last time. Except this time he screws up his presentation again with a long rambling story about Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci as a waiter refusing to give him a reservation! Even in edited form it went on too long! And his dish is very basic. Rock & Roll is dying!

Palombo Bakery is all about cannoli, and Lickie gets it. No, make that Linkie. Giada tells her not to call her dish cannoli unless she makes authentic Italian cannoli. Linkie makes cheese cake with cannoli crust but she runs out of cream cheese. Someone suggests ricotta but she does not know from ricotta – hey, just what kind of a baker is she? She only has one recipe for all her desserts? Still, she does pretty well incorporating the place and the ingredients, and her cheesecake is good. I think it is lucky she ran out of cream cheese!

Team Giada wins! Kara and Judson have to do the Producer Challenge! What? Judson? Ok, he was not great, but he did well last week and Josh has had two bad weeks in a row. They really want Josh, I guess. But if Judson is eliminated I will be mad! Well, not very mad, because I do not think either of them are contenders. But I would rather see Judson a few more weeks than Kara. Maybe I am mixing her up with Fed Up who already went home, but Kara seems very limited in scope.

The producer challenge is to make a memorable potato dish – memorable is key – in 45 minutes and give a one minute camera presentation.

Kara does twice-baked potatoes with a terrific presentation and a little story about her mom making them for her birthday. Judson does a potato-crusted salmon; Alton gives him really good suggestions for camera presentation – rephrasing to be more inviting, and getting him to just talk instead of lecture to an auditorium of customers. Alton has been pretty impressive on this show so far, much nicer than his usual grumpy self. I still miss the goofy Good Eats guy though.

Kara does well on her dish but Bob does not think it is memorable; Susie thinks she is too cheery (wow, you really can not win once they count you out). Bob thinks they have not experienced her yet which makes me giggle. Justin made a dish that was not quite memorable and was not a potato dish, it was a salmon dish. Susie thinks he is a great corporate spokesperson but too artificial.

Kara goes home. And they have cleared the world of long-haired blondes!

We will see next week, when they do the Chopped tie-in episode, what category they go for next. I predict Eric will fumble because he will not have time to make things from scratch but he will try anyway and run out of time! Overall so far I am on Team Short Haired Bottle Blondes, Emily and Michele (with one “l”, I checked)!

Sunday with Zin: and Italo Calvino – Six Memos for the New Millennium, Part IV: Visibility

Fantasy Sketch - "a little archi-doodle" - by Sketchy-G

Fantasy Sketch – “a little archi-doodle” – by Sketchy-G

What will be the future of the individual imagination in what is usually called the “civilization of the image”? Will the power of evoking images of things that are not there continue to develop in a human race increasingly inundated by a flood of prefabricated images?…We are bombarded today by such a quantity of images that we can no longer distinguish direct experience from what we have seen for a few seconds on television. The memory is littered with bits of pieces of images, like a rubbish dump, and it is more and more unlikely that any one from among so many will succeed in standing out.

If I have included visibility in my list of values to be saved, it is to give warning of the danger we run in losing a basic human faculty: the power of bringing visions into focus with our eyes shut, of bringing forth forms and colours from the lines of black letters on a white page, and in fact of thinking in terms of images.

Hello, I am Zin! And we come now to the fourth Memo, Visibility – which concerns itself with the translation from the imagined image of the writer, to words on a page, to the imagined image of the reader! That is a treacherous journey, and it is not surprising that writers vary in ability and techniques to do this!

I see four points of view here: Calvino describes how other writers, based on their work, have accomplished this; he talks about his own writing. Then I will talk about my own writing which is of course a lot less interesting but is how I might learn to do better, and finally I will bring in Richard Osgood and the process he used to write his wonderful story “Millennium House” (which has served as my standard and inspiration for all the Memos)!

Calvino starts out with Dante and the Purgatory of the Divine Comedy; he paraphrases thusly:

O imagination, you who have the power to impose yourself on our faculties and our wills, stealing us away from the outer world and carrying us off into an inner one, so that even if a thousand trumpets were to sound we would not hear them, what is the source of the visual messages that you receive, if they are not formed from sensations deposited in the memory?

Then he brings in a Balzac work that sounds wonderful, I have never heard of it before (not surprising), “The Unknown Masterpiece” which began in 1831 as a story (“the elderly painter Frenhofer’s perfect picture, in which only a woman’s foot emerges from a chaos of color, from a shapeless fog, is both understood and admired by the artist’s two colleagues, Pourbus and Nicholas Poussin”). But Balzac expanded it to a book in which the colleagues do not understand, and Frenhofer “lives for his ideal, but he is condemned to solitude.” In the final 1837 version, “Frenhofer is a madman doomed to lock himself up with his supposed masterpiece, then to burn it and commit suicide.”

What a wonderful and strange and sad progression! “Balzac rejected the literature of fantasy, which for him had meant art as the mystical knowledge of everything, and turned to the minute description of the world as it is, still convinced that he was expressing the secret of life. The artist’s imagination is a world of potentialities that no work will succeed in realizing.”

The key work that starts to clarify things for me is not fiction but The Empire of the Imaginary by Jean Starobinski, a historical survey of imaginative literature! That sounds like fun, yes? Here he introduces the difference between Freud and Jung: is imagination internal and isolated, or external and connective? Do we imagine things based on our own knowledge of the world, or do we use it to connect with a “world soul” related to the collective unconscious? As usual, Calvino finds himself in both camps: he thinks he is more internal/Freudian, but realizes he is actually external/Jungian. And he does not stop there!

Still there is another definition in which I recognize myself fully, and that is the imagination as a repertory of what is potential, what is hypothetical, of what does not exist and has never existed, and perhaps will never exist but might have existed.

At this point I begin to wonder: is this Visibility Memo really about Imagination? Maybe both?

He draws on another work, Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, in which the reader is asked to imagine him or her self as seeing God, seeing the Holy Family, being present at the Nativity, in order to comprehend God better.

I find this truly wonderful, not as a religious exercise but because I have tended to do a similar exercise in some of my stories to know what the character is actually seeing and feeling, so I have a better idea of what is actually happening, what the character is going through, not thinking up words to write but actually experiencing in my almost-asleep imagination what is happening to a character! It usually involves almost falling asleep, which is a trick I picked up after reading From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler. Butler thinks the best writing could be done in that half-asleep state when conscious control eases up; of course the full power of the awake mind needs to be used later, but it is the creativity of the dream state he loves to capture in early stages of forming a story. I always thought of it as a way of getting inside my own mind, not the Jungian collective unconscious (which to me has always seemed like a lot of hooey, sorry) but who knows? Then again, the story I most used this on was not a screaming success, but I think it did help a great deal with several of the scenes.

This brings in the next work Calvino mentions, Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter:

Think, for instance, of a writer who is trying to convey certain ideas which to him are contained in mental images. He isn’t quite sure how those images fit together in his mind, and he experiments around, expressing things first one way and then another, and finally settles on some version. But does he know where it all came from? Only in a vague sense. Much of the source, like an iceberg, is deep underwater, unseen—and he knows that.

He began this kind of imagery early on, by looking at Italian versions of the Katzenjammer Kids and Felix the Cat comic strips before he could read! In fact he says he did not get more out of them once he could read; I am not surprised he was able to imagine better stories than the original captions!

The work I did later in life, extracting stories from the mysterious figures of the tarot and interpreting the same figure in a different way each time, certainly had its roots in my obsessive porings over pages and pages of cartoons when I was a child.

He is talking about “fantastical” literature, but I have often seen a writer claim a Realism story was inspired by a single image – two in this blog come to mind right now, first, “Someone Ought To Tell Her There’s Nowhere To Go” which began with an image “of a man in uniform carrying a little girl on his shoulders”, and second, “The Rules Are The Rules” by Adam Foulds: “The story began with a single image: a priest who longs to be a father holds an infant for baptism.” These images actually play a fairly small role in the finished story, but creating the moment for them to occur and the aftermath is fundamental, because I think they provide a direction and focus for the story.

The artist Frenhofer from the early Balzac work, then, is able to connect his inner images with others, but in the later versions as Balzac changed his mind, is not, and it brings him to despair! And St. Ignatius used the imagination as a way to connect with the divine, though I would imagine he felt the Divine did a major part of the work in that endeavor! And for Dante, I think he saw it more as going from external to internal, bringing the external world to a more personal, interior understanding!

As for Richard, rather than his story “Millennium House” (which is excellent and should by all means be read! Go ahead, it is flash, very very short, and I will be here when you get back!) it is his experience of writing it, detailed in an interview he was kind enough to do with me for a previous post, that I see relating to this Visibility! Some of his most pertinent observations include his initial image:

It is difficult sometimes to pin down the conception of a story. The idea came about from a discussion of Camus’ novel “The Stranger” by Professor Martin Stone who described the novel and Camus’ intent to be about the absurdity of human existence coupled with the tendency for humans to seek meaning for our absurd condition…. Initially it began as a house for no-man, then as a house for everyman…. This house and this story is about the non-place of place.

…and his thoughts on what is somewhat related to the internal/Freudian vs external/Jungian debate (though it is really more about crossing the enormous boundary between “you” and “other” – until we learn to record and interpret brain waves we can only know what is in another mind by what they do or say to convey it):

Many argue that it’s impossible to conceive anything other than from inside the self, that it’s impossible to escape the individual ego. I believe we have the ability to extend ourselves beyond the capsule of direct experience to a tethered assimilation of indirect experience, thereby establishing a connection outside the self—if by definition the self is a construct of direct experience. Indirect experience consists of the intellectual and emotional connection with worldly interactions of others’ direct experiences. While the act of assimilation is a direct experience, the “connection” with a direct experience of another person long since dead is indirect, and though maybe not completely “outside” the self, it is at least an oblique sidestep from the self such that it is not necessary for the self to be a material participant in the experience.

So I think Richard is more of the Jungian school! I am also fascinated by his process of reading in different chairs depending on the work; this seems to me to be a wonderful way to prime the pump, so to speak, to be receptive to the image that is being conveyed:

I decided to read “The Stranger” by Camus and “Six Memos” by Calvino in the same chair, which is really a bench pushed up against a half wall between the back room and the foyer that leads to the kitchen. I can’t be too comfortable reading Camus and Calvino. The straight-on window from that spot in the room is at such an angle that at any time of day or night, and in any light, all I see in the glass is my reflection. No trees or flowers or songbirds for these guys.

I have learned so much about writing and reading from this short little flash he wrote that is so quintessentially Calvino; I hope others can as well!

On to Multiplicity!

Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 2

Beatrice Warde's manifesto

Beatrice Warde’s manifesto

And we pick up where we left off in Part 1, right after Chapter 2: Let’s be a little more serious (don’t worry, just a little, and just for a while), starting with a Fontbreak:

Fontbreak: Gill Sans
In the mid-1920s, Eric Gill painted a sign for a bookstore with what evolved into one of the most common typefaces in Britain, used by the Church of England, the BBC, and Penguin Books. In 1989 Fiona MacCarthy published a biography of the designer, which may give you pause the next time you see this “most British of types….spare, proper, and reservedly proud” – he kept a detailed diary which included the notation, “Continued experiments with dog… and discovered that a dog will join with a man.” Oh, and then there’s the incest and pedophilia… Yes, the guy was a pervert of the lowest order. Maybe that’s why the penguins waddle, y’think? It creates an interesting question for organizations like the BBC and Westminster Cathedral, both of whom use Gill Sans: Is it censorship (and artistic treason, not to mention economic hardship) to replace the work of a pedophile, or common sense?

Chapter 3: Legibility vs Readability
Is the perfect font a crystal goblet – transparent so the wine is the star – or a golden chalice, to be admired on its own? Opinions differ. Beatrice Warde, publicist for the Monotype corporation in the 20s and 30s, and, lord help her, “friend (and sometimes lover) of Eric Gill” wrote the eloquent essay The Crystal Goblet, stating the case for her point of view. The sign above (it’s not the same version as printed in the book) was her Credo, and was found in most printing offices of the time (and is well-known enough to be parodied and adapted to the printing press of today). Kind of makes you want to salute when you walk past Kinkos, doesn’t it?
As I understand it, readability is legibility in practice, and in volume. A bold all-caps stylized headline can be legible from across the room, but would be a poor choice for a paragraph. While I was able to prove the “dot test” to my satisfaction – the dots of the “i” in New Times Roman and other serif fonts is indeed slightly shifted to the left – I’m dubious about the “stem test” – the stem of the “t” is thicker at the bottom to keep it from falling over (visually, of course). Unless they mean that extra couple of pixels which curve more quickly on the left side, resulting in an extremely brief increased thickness.

Font Break: Albertus
First a fairly thorough description (“…combining Roman values with individual flair….The large rounded letters are complemented by the narrow horizontal E, F, L, and T, which are even more effective when doubled. The S has a smaller counter at the bottom than at the top, which can make it appear upside-down”) with examples, and history (Berthold Wolpe created it in 1932 for use on bronze memorial tablets), the punch line comes in the explanation of why it (with some small modifications) was used for the signs in the old TV show The Prisoner (which I was just barely old enough to appreciate on first run): it was “visually stunning” and “perfectly suited to the unnerving psychological landscape” but above all else – for use on late-1960s televisions – it was highly legible. A clone of the variation (the dots of the “i” removed, and some minor changes to other letters) is available; and a restaurant in France has deliberately recreated the look, emphasizing the Celtic elements, to mimic The Village. That’s the power of a well-chosen font: it evokes a forty-year-old tv series that only ran for seventeen episodes, and it makes a French chef want to appear Celtic.

Chapter 4: Can a Font Make Me Popular?
Matthew Carter, creator of Verdana and Tahoma, has trouble at movies:

…so often when Carter sees films he notices niggly things wrong with type. How could a story set in Peru in the nineteenth century possibly have a sign on a restaurant door that had been composed in Univers from 1957? How could the film Ed Wood, set in the 1950s, use Chicago, a font from the 1980s, as the sign at the entrance of a studio? And how did the props team of a movie set at the start of the Second World War get the idea that it would be okay to print a document in Snell Roundhand Bold, when Carter, watching in the muliplex, would recognize the face as something he himself created in 1972?

Designer Mark Simonson devotes a section of his website to such faux pas.

Font Break: Futura vs Verdana
The consumer backlash when Ikea switched fonts was so dramatic – and unprecidented – it even made the Business section of Time.

Chapter 5: The Hands of Unlettered Men
The post-Guttenburg proliferation of type in the late 15th century, from the da Spira brothers in Venice, epicenter of the printing explosion, to William Caxton in England.

Font Break: Doves

Doves type is most easily recognized by its ample space between letters, a y that descends without a curl, a ligature connecting c and t, and the bottom bowl of its g set at an angle, giving it a sense of motion, .like a helicopter tilting at take-off.

The type that was drowned – creator and owner Thomas Cobden-Sanderson threw it in the Thames in 1916 to keep it from passing to his former Doves Press partner upon his death. Too bad – the Doves Press Bible is beautiful, with a drop-cap for the ages.
ADDENDUM: 2/6/15 Breaking news from the World of Fonts: 150 pieces of Doves was recently recovered by font designer Robert Green, who looked in the last place they’d been seen: the Thames River. Seriously. Sometimes the simple solution works.

Join us next time for the Ampersand Chronicles and the tale of a Superior Cub…

Peter Stamm: “Sweet Dreams” from The New Yorker, 5/14/12

New Yorker illustration by Victo Ngai

New Yorker illustration by Victo Ngai

The corkscrew was shaped like a girl in a pleated frock, of the sort that Lara knew from childhood photographs of her mother, a short, light-green summer dress. Only the red collar didn’t really fit; it should have been embroidered tulle, and white. Lara could see the pictures – big family get-togethers in a garden in the north of Italy, full of people she didn’t know. Even her mother didn’t know all their names. “That man was a neighbor – what was his name again? And aren’t those my mother’s cousin Alberto’s children?…” The colors were faded which somehow made them more garish. It was as though the photographs had captured the sun, the sun of childhood, pale and ever-present. Thereafter the family had fallen apart and people had gone their separate ways. When Lara had visited Italy with her parents, there hadn’t been any more big reunions, only afternoons spent in darkened homes with old people who smelled funny and served dry cookies and big plastic bottles of lukewarm Fanta.

The first thing that grabbed me was the corkscrew – a good sign, since that quote above is the opening of the story. What great use of the old saw Show, Don’t Tell – instead of writing, “The corkscrew unleashed memories of a time I only knew from pictures,” he shows exactly how those memories pop out at Lara and stream over her, like… well, like champagne bubbles, or the aroma of fine wine, pouring out after uncorking. Or – even better – the genie let out of the bottle.

And what terrific detail, familiar to many of us, those family pictures we’ve seen but don’t really understand, making us feel maybe like we, through only the accident of timing, missed the good part.

I’ll continue along with my experience of this story, but let me warn you: it’s a story that, once spoiled, cannot be unspoiled. It will be far better if you experience it yourself – if you read it, rather than read about it. So stop here, if you haven’t read your copy yet. If you don’t have a copy, you might want to get one.

The story continues, telling us more about Lara. She and Simon are a young Swiss couple, early 20s, not yet married but living together four months. It’s the first time either of them have lived outside their parents’ homes, and they’re feeling that first flush of independence:

…[A] full shopping cart was like the emblem of the fulfilled life that lay before them. When Simon wheeled it into the underground parking garage, with Lara at his side, she felt deep pride and a curious satisfaction in being grown up and independent.

I remember that (and, from his interview, I see the author does as well). I remember the first groceries I bought for my first meal in my first place: fish sticks and frozen peas. I remember one day buying a cheap cut of meat, having no idea what it was or how to cook it, and repeating, “Blade steak, blade steak” so I could get the casual tone right when I talked to my parents: “Oh, I had a blade steak for dinner.” My parents, however, had no real interest in anything about my new life, preferring to assume I was making a mess of things. Which I was, of course, that’s what 18 is for, but it’s also how we learn to be 19 and 25 and 58.

Lara and Simon are making their home together in a small apartment over a seedy restaurant (the landlady-restauranteur has a sign: “PLEASE DON’T THROW BREAD AWAY” over a box in the hallway always full of stale bread, used for who-knows-what: bread crumbs? Bird feed?) in a not-terribly-nice part of town near where Simon grew up. They add things little by little: a mattress and box spring (no frame yet, that’ll come), a used coffee maker, and towels. Quality towels. Simon isn’t sure about the expense for those quality towels, but Lara is:

“It’s a mistake to economize on quality – these towels will last us forever,” Lara told him. “Forever is a long time,” Simon answered.

So maybe they are on the same path, maybe not. Maybe Simon is worried about being stuck forever; maybe he’s just not interested in using the same towels forever (even Lara has settled for the color, a not-too-pleasant mustardy yellow).

They ride the bus home from work, sitting in their favorite seat (it’s not as bright, and their conversation is covered by noise). Just as they are getting off the bus, Lara notices a man in a black coat. Ah, a sinister note enters the story, a minor chord thrown in. Their eyes meet. “…Lara saw and attentiveness and a kind of hunger that she found a little disagreeable, but at the same time provocative.” He goes in another direction, and she returns her attention to Simon as they go home.

She shows him the corkscrew; predictably, he’s mildly concerned about the cost, but they plan to get a bottle of wine from the restaurant downstairs to put it to use. She draws a bath, and Simon tries to come in but she blocks him. She’s shy, still in that not-quite-comfortable-with-casual-nudity phase of a relationship which for some people lasts microseconds and for others, decades.

There’s a scene in the restaurant, where she goes looking for him after her bath; he’s fixing the television, and she hears a news story about a dead body found at the lake. Something overheard about an animal hater; a creaking staircase, a dark silhouette, a pot left to boil and a tiny scolding, adding little dark notes, but it’s all good, overall, and Lara and Simon end up back in their kitchen with their bottle of wine and they make love on the floor in ways that leave marks from the coconut mat on Lara’s back and scrapes on her knees, her bathtub shyness not a factor.

After dinner, Lara watches television for a while (I begin to wonder, is that it? It’s the last page, is it another slice-of-life-exposition story?) and sees on her screen the man in the black coat on an interview show. Turns out he’s a writer. He talks about his work:

Only today, on the bus to the studio, he added, he’d seen this young couple, two perfectly ordinary young people, sitting together and talking terribly earnestly. “They reminded me of my youth, of a woman I wanted to marry and have kids with,” he said. “Then something got in the way. But I’ve never felt so sure of anything as I did then, before I really knew the first thing about living.”
He imagined that the couple had only just moved in together; they were still furnishing their apartment and buying things for it and maybe, with slight astonishment, contemplating the years that lay ahead of them, asking themselves whether their relationship would last. “It was that blissful but slightly anxious moment of starting out that interested me,” the writer said. “Maybe I’ll write a story about it.”….

Aha, I thought. So Lara and Simon are fictional characters, I didn’t see that coming. The writer’s television interview is full of insight: “He talked about how young couples sometimes resembled very old couples, perhaps because both had to deal with uncertainty.” Yes, the uncertainty, the forever towels in mustard yellow.

I’d been thinking all along, yes, this is how it was, way back then, it was all so familiar and warm and the story fit my memory (or did I change the memory to make it fit because it was such an inviting past?) and now I find it was the memory of the writer. The writer in the story.

But it isn’t that simple (if that can be considered simple); the writer isn’t done yet.

The host asked if it wasn’t tricky to write from life. The writer shook his head. He wouldn’t be painting a portrait of these two individuals. They had given him an idea for something, but they had nothing to do with the people he’d write about in his story. In actual fact, they weren’t a couple at all, he said. They’d got off at two different stops and kissed goodbye on the cheek. Lara heard the last train pull in.

So Lara and Simon are fictional characters created and freed and now of independent will, as writers know characters sometimes can be. It’s like the theory of parallel universes, where everything that can happen, does happen, in one of an infinite number of universes that have been spawning innumerably since the beginning of time. And in Lara’s universe, the universe of this story, she is watching the writer on television, whereas in the writer’s universe, he wanted to write about a couple he’d seen, but really about his own memory, his own story.

The writer would have gone home a long time ago, even as he continued to speak on the TV. For a month, the channel would keep replaying this conversation with him, in an endless loop, until he himself had become just as imaginary a figure as Lara or Simon.

And this completes the circle, this increased narrative distance of the third-person narrator explaining the story I’d just read: A reality as a fiction.

I went back to the beginning and looked for clues, and found only one: the lead-in to the shopping cart quote:

“Do we need milk?” “You know, the coffee’s almost gone.” “We’re out of garbage bags.” Sentences like that had an unexpected charm, and a full shopping cart was like an emblem of the fulfilled life that lay before them.

The use of the word “sentences” is, now that I think about it, just a bit unusual. It’s the phrasing a writer, writing about someone, would use. Giving another level to the reality. Everything – Lara and Simon, the writer, the reader – as the observation of someone else. Reality: a recursive puzzle that turns inside out on itself; something like Robert Coover’s “Matinee“, a series of zoom-outs in which the subject becomes the object over and over again. And where will it end – who is the final, ultimate, un-objected Subject?

That’s what happens when you uncork the bottle.

Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 1

Periodic Table of Elements by Cameron Wilde/SquidSpot

Periodic Table of Elements by Cameron Wilde/SquidSpot

I love this book. How can you not love a book with the Periodic Table of Typefaces on the endpapers?

I love it so much (and I’m not quite done with it yet), I’m going to stretch it out over a series of posts, so I can include all the things I loved. Sure, I know I have a problem with editing, but this book, even if you don’t care about fonts or typography, there’s probably going to be something in it that appeals to you. Like one of the greatest April Fool’s Day hoaxes ever perpetrated on Great Britain. Or the quandary Westminster Abbey was in when it was discovered the designer of the signage at the Stations of the Cross was an incestuous pedophile (among other things). Or the games people play with fonts. Or the story of the font that was drowned to keep it out of the wrong hands. I don’t want to leave anything out.

It’s arranged in a rather stream-of-consciousness style rather than chronologically or by sections and subsections. Most of the 22 chapters – they’re fairly short, maybe six to eight pages each – end with some kind of lead-in to the next. They’re separated by Fontbreaks, two- or three-page spotlights on a specific font.

You won’t learn much about type design or page layout here; for that, you need a different kind of book. If you’re a total type novice, a two minute browse of any site explaining typeface terms – bowls, stems, descenders and counters – might be helpful in a few places. But it’s not essential; most of it’s pretty intuitive, and plenty of illustrations are included. In fact, the Introduction is mostly a fifteen-page graphic essay of how type is used in everything from TV show logos to the New York Times classifieds to iPhones.

It’s a wonderfully entertaining book, informative, readable, and fun – particularly when read at your computer, with the book in one hand and your mouse in the other. I spent nearly an hour on some chapters, just checking out what’s mentioned. I’ve included links to some of the most fun stuff; the book provides an appendix of online resources.

Introduction: Love Letters

Typefaces are now 560 years old. So when a Brit called Matthew Carter constructed Verdana and Georgia for the digital age in the 1990s, what could he possibly have been doing to an A and a B that had never been done before? And how did an American friend of his make the typeface Gotham, which eased Barack Obama into the presidency? And what exactly makes a font presidential or American, or British, French, German, Swiss, or Jewish? These are arcane mysteries, and it is the job of this book to get to the heart of them.

Chapter 1: We Don’t Serve Your Type
The introduction ends with a warning:

But we should begin with a cautionary tale, a story of what happens when a typeface gets out of control.

You know what’s coming, don’t you? Comic Sans, developed by Vincent Connare, originally designed to accompany Microsoft Bob, a dog-icon that would serve as a Help function on Office. The idea was to make computers, and Microsoft Bob in particular, less threatening to first-time users. But the font proved too big, so it was never incorporated; Bob wasn’t a hit, and was discontinued (replaced, I suppose, by Paper Clip Man, whom I despise with a passion unaccounted for by reason). Since it was there, Comic Sans was included in the supplementary fonts package for Windows 95. It’s now the most hated font in the world. The first six or ten sites you’ll find if you google “Comic Sans” will be anti-CS groups and websites. In my travels I’ve noticed some literary journals (like Plain Spoke and Puritan) specifically forbid it; the Futures SF column of Nature also forbids it on a guidelines page in a font that looks very much like CS, lending an ironic tone to the whole thing. A friend of mine used CS for her personal emails – purple, no less – and it suited her. But, like a hoodie, it could lead to trouble.

Chapter 2: Capital Offenses
In 2007, Vicki Walker, New Zealand insurance worker, was fired for causing “disharmony in the workplace” by sending an email in upper case (plus red and bold sections); her later wrongful termination lawsuit was successful. The chapter blends into history: Guttenberg, and the origins of moveable type; Upper Case referred to the box in which capitals were stored.

But that’s all preface to the main event: On April 1, 1977, the UK’s Guardian ran a seven-page supplement touting the newly discovered vacation spot, the islands of The Republic of San Seriffe, complete with map of the two major islands of Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse, with feature stories on the lovely beaches of Gill Sands and the charming port of Clarendon, and a profile of President Maria-Jesu Pica (helpfully archived online by the newspaper). This was, of course, before everyone had a PC on his or her desk with those font names in a drop-down menu at the top; no one knew from serifs. Travel agents, swamped with requests to book passage to this unknown paradise, could find no Bodoni Airport, no Garamondo Inlet. It ranks as one of the best April Fool’s Day hoaxes in modern history.

See why I love this book?

More to come…

Just call me Princess SohCahToa

If it seems like I’ve been commenting on fewer short stories recently, it’s because math takes a lot of my time.

I missed out on math in school. Not that I didn’t take math classes – and lots of them. But at some point things like completing the square started going by me, and I took it hard. Like when I wrote a suicide note as the answer to the freebie extra-credit question on my Advanced Algebra II midterm: “Why is math fun?” It was the 60s, teachers still laughed at stuff like that back then, especially when my score on the test was a B (I, a caucasian of mixed northern-European heritage, understood the Asian F decades before Glee picked up on it). No one even bothered to ask why I, a freshman, was taking this class, typically in that era populated by juniors.

I gave up at that point and never took another high school math course, though I still struggled in chemistry and physics with the same issues: I don’t know my multiplication tables, and I don’t have a sense of things like inverses and halving a fraction by doubling the denominator. I can do that stuff, but I have to muscle it. You know how some people can’t figure out complete sentences or commas or quotation marks or spelling? That’s me with math. I like to think it gives me a sense of empathy for those who aren’t as strong in some areas as I am. But the truth is, it’s a pain in the ass.

In college (I was a non-traditional student, doing part-time night school then finally, in my 30s, a couple of full-time years to finish up, and even a little grad school) I tried again. Twice. Algebra killed me. Factoring was a nightmare. Trigonometry baffled me. I had to wrestle every problem to the ground. I got through a condensed calculus class with a final score of 105 by spending two to four hours a day working problems, then working them again until I found a way to do them. I have no idea how calculus works, or what it is, though I vaguely remember something about speed at a single point in time.

See, that’s the problem. Concepts like that interest me. If speed is meters per second, you can’t have a speed without two points in time – except you can, with calculus. How cool is that? Don’t ask me to understand it, but it’s amazing. Like infinity. Hey, even Italo Calvino likes infinity.

(Did Italo Calvino add on his fingers? Could he balance his checkbook – did he know whether you add or subtract the 42 cents you forgot to record when you wrote that check for $37.42? Or did he have to go back and recalculate the whole month, the way I do?)

When that wretched imp Zin discovered Khan Academy a few months ago, I tried again: I still want to prove I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog-gone it, people like me. All my friends in high school understood algebra; most went on to Trig, Analytical Geometry, and Calculus without me. When I worked as a computer programmer and then systems analyst (an era I try to repress), my friends played with ideas for random number generators and fractal calculators and I sat quietly with my hands folded and my eyes downcast. I’m a little less distressed now that I hang out online with writers and artists, but I still come across the occasional writer who can calc, and it reminds me of my failings.

I’m also hoping by exercising different parts of my brain, I’ll develop complementary smart muscles. I told my Zoetrope buddy Marko about a voice teacher who encouraged me to work out the lower regions of my voice as a way of adding tone and support to the high registers. Maybe the same thing works with words and numbers.

So I started the (free) Khan course. Slowly. With arithmetic. 273 times 13. One half divided by one fourth. Numbers on the screen the size of my thumb. I finally got a calculator. I had to. The 8s and 6s still elude me, forty+ years later. Nine times six might be 32 or 34 or 36. Four times eight might be 48 or 46 unless I think about it, in which case it might be 32 or 36 or 24. Something about those two numbers, it’s like there’s a broken wire in my brain. I’m ok with the nines and sevens threes and most of the fours, and of course the fives, but if there’s a six or an eight in a problem, I’ll get it wrong. I have lots of “Persistence” badges. You get those when you do 20 problems without getting 5 in a row right.

I’ve progressed – slowly. I’m an Artisan Algebraist, in fact, a Journeyman Statistician and now an Apprentice Trigonometer, bless my aching cosecant and Princess SohCahToa. And if you think that didn’t cost some blood, toil, tears, and sweat, think again. Not to mention a sheaf of notes and my calculator.

It’s no easier now than it was back when I was 13, or 22, or 30. But I think I finally understand how to Complete the Square. (addendum: nope; I forgot again)

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Sam Ruddick, “Leak” from Threepenny Review, Summer 2010

I was telling Peyton about a friend of mine who’d seen a documentary on polar bears one day and quit his mob in marketing the next; he’d moved to Alaska and gone to work for an environmental nonprofit, and I thought there must have been something wrong with him, because he’d always been so business-minded in the past, and the polar bear thing came out of nowhere…. She said it was like that sometimes. People just did things.”

Oscar wants the world to make sense. It doesn’t.

He’s lolling in bed with the lovely (and married) Peyton when his ex-girlfriend Stacy waltzes in to make pasta. Peyton takes this in stride. They’re opposites: Peyton is the smooth professional in a silk blouse he met at the National Gallery, and Stacy’s the Lollipop girl with dyed red hair in pigtails. I’m not sure why the switch from business to polar bears surprises him. And, oh, he has a drippy kitchen faucet.

I may be too old for this kind of story. There’s lots of momentum, and it’s entertaining – Furman’s introduction captures it well: the additional characters enter “like clowns exploding from a car”. There’s what should be a huge turning point in the middle when Peyton has a car accident while leaving – with Oscar “standing firmly in the moment for the first time all night” – but it isn’t a turning point at all, since Oscar’s befuddlement continues as Peyton’s husband George, easy-going grease monkey who’s fine with the affair since he’s had his share, comes over to pick her up and by the way fix the leak.

In his Contributor Notes, Ruddick says: “I used to be overly concerned with plausibility: The actions of my characters had to make sense. People don’t work that way. I don’t know why I thought fictional characters would. Ridding myself of the notion has made the work much more interesting.” I’m not sure if by “the work” he means the work of writing, or this particular story. In any case, he does a nice job of straddling the line between realism and absurdism.

But… nothing really connects with me other than some mild amusement, so I’m still not sure I get it. All three of the others are completely different from each other? Oscar in the center of chaos? He’s had a tool box (one his mother gave him, no less) for twenty years and it takes George to fix his leak? There’s got to be a huge message here. I’m sure Peyton, Stacy, and George know exactly what it is, so, like Oscar, I’m just living with the drip until someone fixes it for me. Hmmm… I wonder if that means something.

Sunday with Zin: and Italo Calvino – Six Memos for the New Millennium, Part III: Exactitude

Art by Leo Vilela: "Water Flame"

Art by Leo Vilela: “Water Flame”

Crystal and flame: two forms of perfect beauty that we cannot tear our eyes away from, two modes of growth in time, of expenditure of the matter surrounding them, two moral symbols, two absolutes, two categories for classifying facts and ideas, styles and feelings….I have always considered myself a partisan of the crystal, but the passage just quoted teaches me not to forget the value of the flame as a way of being, as a mode of existence. In the same way, I would like those who think of themselves as disciples of the flame not to lose sight of the tranquil, arduous lesson of the crystal.

Hello, I am Zin! And today we are studying Exactitude!

I have to say this is the hardest of the Memos so far! Not that it is that hard to read, but I am not sure I see where he actually discusses what he says he is setting out to discuss on the first page!
And that is:

First I shall try to define my subject. To my mind exactitude means three things above all:
(1) a well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question;
(2) an evocation of clear, incisive, memorable visual images; in Italian we have an adjective that doesn’t exist in English, “icastico,” from the Greek είχαστιχος [eikastikos]; and
(3) a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination.

There is some wonderful material in this Memo! But I am just not sure it all dealt with these points! He goes into commentary about the “plague” of current language use but does not say, “Here is an example, this is poor use!” Now, of course, I know there are many times when I am upset by this very thing – for example, “literally” means literally, it is not an intensifier, so if you “literally hit the ceiling” you climb up on a ladder and physically hit the ceiling; it does not mean you got really, really mad, in which case you are still figuratively hitting the ceiling. It is an age when “OMG” is considered conversation – but I wonder if it is language use to blame, or if we have just become so anesthetized to everything other than our own little lives, we do not really need grand tropes to talk about our unfaithful lover or our boring job or our empty bank account! Then again, maybe it is because language is so undeveloped and the greater world, universe, has been ignored, that we are stuck with such unpleasant circumstances! And most of all I do not know if this is what Calvino means at all!

But back to the three points Calvino uses to define Exactitude:

On the first point I do not think he dwells at all! And it is in direct contrast to the way some writers advocate “just write” and let the character and the story tell you what happens next! Now, I understand, Calvino means in the finished version, there must be a plan, and freewriting is a way to get there. In fact, he makes reference to his own tendency to freewrite this lecture: “This talk is refusing to be led in the direction I set myself. I began by speaking of exactitude, not of the infinite and the cosmos.” But he does not really reference this point directly, maybe because it is self-explanatory. Even if you freewrite, you have to edit! What really interests me is that he goes from exactitude to infinity (the “cosmos”) and decides they are related! So his freewriting had a point after all! Was it a plan? I do not know!

Calvino is not sure about vagueness; after all, “Italian is the only language in which the word vago (vague) also means ‘lovely, attractive’.” He starts to use the notebooks of Leopardi (“Zibaldone di pensieri“) which praise vagueness, but finds it is not as simple as that:

Thus Leopardi, whom I had chosen as the ideal opponent of my argument in favor of exactitude, turns out to be a decisive witness in its favor….the poet of vagueness can only be the poet of exactitude, who is able to grasp the subtlest sensations with eyes and ears and quick, unerring hands….the search for the indefinite becomes the observation of all that is multiple, teeming, composed of countless particles.


In his reflections, two terms are constantly compared: the “indefinite” and the “infinite.” For Leopardi, unhappy hedonist that he was, what is unknown is always more attractive than what is known; hope and imagination are the only consolations for the disappointments and sorrows of experience. Man therefore projects his desire into infinity and feels pleasure only when he is able to imagine that this pleasure has no end. But since the human mind cannot conceive the infinite, and in fact falls back aghast at the very idea of it, it has to make do with what is indefinite, with sensations as they mingle together and create an impression of infinite space, illusory but pleasurable all the same

I am sorry to quote so much but I do not want to misinterpret!

When I read this, I thought of the fractal concept of the infinite coastline! The smaller your yardstick gets, the longer the coastline measurement is (if it is really tiny it gets into the little crevices a larger yardstick misses) and the theory is, if you have an infinitely small measuring device, you have an infinitely long coastline! But of course coastlines are not infinitely large (and yardsticks are not infinitely small). But it is a mathematical and scientific concept that links the definite with the infinite! The more definite the measure, the closer it is to infinite!

He also uses as examples Poe (“Eureka“) –

[“Infinity”] stands for the possible attempt at an impossible conception. Man needed a term by which to point out the direction of this effort….Out of this demand arose the word, “Infinity;” which is thus the representative but of the thought of a thought.

(wow, that is way beyond “Annabelle Lee”, yes?)

– and Paul Valery (Monsieur Teste) who “[I]n our century…is the one who has best defined poetry as a straining toward exactitude….putting his Monsieur Teste face to face with pain, and making him combat physical suffering by an exercise in abstract geometry.”

“I feel zones of pain … Some of these flashes are exactly like ideas….When it is about to appear, I find in myself something confused or diffused. Areas that are … hazy occur inside me, wide spaces come into view. Then I choose a question from my memory, any problem at all … I plunge into it. I count grains of sand … But increasing pain forces me to observe it. I think about it! I only await my cry … and as soon as I have heard it—the object, the terrible object, getting smaller, and still smaller, vanishes from my inner sight.”

and Robert Musil (The Man Without Qualities“):

…the logical conclusion is a human being with the paradoxical combination of precision and indefiniteness. He possesses an incorruptible, deliberate cold- bloodedness, the temperament that goes with exactitude; but apart from and beyond this quality, all is indefinite.

I am especially excited to see Musil brought in here, because I have encountered him before! He wrote a very short story, “Rabbit Catastrophe” after which a literary journal is named! I liked the name so much I found a copy of the book from Mainecat and read the story, which in 1938 was prescient of the effect of the Nazis (he was Austrian, his wife was Jewish, his books were banned, they fled to Switzerland and he died in the middle of WWII).

Now, see, just like Calvino, I am having a hard time keeping to the subject, because all these interesting little side-streets keep coming up! Back to Exactitude!

He uses the Crystal and the Flame, quoted above, as symbols of Paiget and Chomsky. Remember in Quickness he was a Saturnalian longing to be Mercurial? Here he is a Crystal who wants to be a flame! I love that there is always a balance of the value he is addressing, and the opposite!

The symbol most associated with Calvino, another that tantalizes him: the city! I have not read Invisible Cities; I glanced at it when I was checking out the Memos, but decided to wait. It is the sort of thing I fear is beyond me. But I can understand why it is so intriguing, all that motion, all that vastness, but all those details!

Now back to Language: words. Words are miracles, yes? He talks about “natural” and formalized language, and I am not sure I understand the difference as he means them (I know something about engineered languages, like computer languages and even Esperanto, but I do not think this is what he means). But I think his point is that words are representative of reality, not reality – language says more than words, but less than experience. I think can see how that relates to exactitude – literature, using the quality of exactitude, attempts to express reality with words?

Then we have Ponge, whom he admires for “reconstructing the physical nature of the world by means of the impalpable, powder-fine dust of words.” This led me to the amazing text from “The Parti Pris of Things: Notes For A Shell.” I am dealing with a user translation – it seems there is no standard published English version –so I am not sure of the accuracy, but it starts with a description of a shell, a monument created by a mere scallop from the effluvium of its own body, and in the space of two paragraphs works its way to this startling conclusion:

The true common secretion of the human mollusc, of that which is most proportionate and suited to his body, and yet the most different from his body, and yet the most different from his form that can be conceived; I mean the Word.

Does that not make the hairs stand up on your arms? In a good way, I mean – awe! Awesome, in the most – ahem – exact sense!

The memo ends (and disappointingly; I wish it had ended with the human mollusc!) with Da Vinci, who struggled with his classic Greek and Roman and thus had trouble communicating with those who would have been the Academics of his day. He made a notation similar to “a picture is worth a thousand words” in one of his anatomy notebooks. This is very true when one is describing the way a tendon attaches to a bone, but not when it comes to expressing the heart.

So I get to the end and again, I am left wondering, how does this relate to writing? And here, other than using precise language (of course) I am not sure! Maybe it is similar to something I once read – instead of interpreting, describe: do not say “I was angry when he did that” but how the stomach churned and the fists clenched and the voice rose (my hero Seth Fried just had a funny essay about Show, Don’t Tell for his Tin House Blog Das Kolumne).

But I can not believe this is what Calvino was getting at. I went googling, and found more architecture – I am still amazed at the connection between Calvino and architects like Richard Osgood whose story “Millennium House” drew me to this study. And since I was getting nowhere fast, I went back to that story, which I loved, to see if I could glimpse Exactitude.

All I can say is that the language is extremely precise, both in concrete terms and as images and metaphors. I still smile when I read about sour milk-breath! It is also vague in that I have no idea what the house looks like! I am not sure it can even exist in normal space-time! But as an image it works so perfectly! Also “bells in sunken towers” – I can see the old English countryside – “and plastic wheels on faded asphalt” – I can hear kids pulling wagons and skating in parking lots and driveways!

I think I have failed this chapter, as hard as I have tried to understand Exactitude, but maybe it is because Exactitude is so inexact! Maybe if I could see some examples of what Calvino called inexact, that would help! Since that is not likely to be forthcoming, I will just continue and hope something further on will bring me back here with better understanding!

Food Network Star 2012: Preview

Zin blogged this last year, but due to an obsession with Italo Calvino, is unavailable. I’m still debating whether I want to recap or not, but it’s easier to drop out after the first week than to catch up, and Food Network is always good for some primo snark, so here goes. Addendum: I finished debating: I’ll sit this one out. Re-addendum: Zin to the rescue! There will be blogging starting with episode 2!

It’s Season 8 – oh, lord, really? – and the format is a little different. Each mentor (Bobby Flay, Giada DeLaurentiis, Alton Brown) will have a team of contestants. Seems like they’re bringing in a little Worst Cooks in America, which isn’t a bad idea, since much to my surprise (and embarrassment), I actually enjoyed the most recent run with Bobby Flay going up against Anne Burrell. I’ve always liked Good Eats though Alton Brown has never translated to FNS – here he isn’t a loveable goofy geek, he’s a nasty, hypercritical SOB without a kind word for anyone. And Giada, well, snark bait. But that’s what we’re here for, after all.

I’m trying to recall the past FNS winners: Guy Fieri is really the only success, which speaks for itself. The first winner, the gay team of The Hardy Boys, disappeared. The second winner, chosen after the front-runner disclosed he wasn’t really in Iraq and Afghanistan as he’d claimed on screen, quit after her six-episode run. I think Guy was third, but I’m not sure. Then there was the hospital cook Big Daddy, who participated in FNS though his 14 year old son ran away from home a few weeks before filming; from what I understand, the kid is back and all is well. And Aarti, who was supposed to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, has pretty much disappeared into the background. Last season was Sandwich King Jeff Mauro, another singularly forgettable entry in the interminable line-up of banal cooking shows aimed at buffing stars to sell products at K-Mart. Or maybe it’s Target, or QVC, I don’t pay that much attention.

So why do I bother with this mess? It’s the train wreck you can’t help but stare at. Everything is a lie. Contestants are coached to say what “viewers” want to hear at the same time they’re exhorted to “be yourself.” Then they’re eliminated for not having a handle on their Culinary Point of View. It’s interesting that the recent winners – the Sandwich King and Aartie – came into the competition with C-POVs that remained unmodified. And you still can’t convince me they’re going to let a reality show determine the major expenditure of even a limited run (six episode) series. Smoke and mirrors. How earnestly they try to peddle it, makes them look like fools. And, though it’s election season and fools abound, it’s always fun to laugh at a few more.

So who is it this time? Here’s the roster of the fifteen so eager to be on TV that they’ll make total fools of themselves licking FN butt:

Team Alton Brown:

Cristie Schoen, 35, from NOLA – no, California. Oh, wait, from Europe. She’s got an IMDB listing as both an actress and a caterer. I didn’t know caterers got IMDB listings. Her C-POV is farm-to-table, fresh, organic, and all those things, but she learned Cajun in NOLA and European cuisines while traveling there. I’m dubious: she’s the poster girl for “you need a better C-POV.” And her bio seems jumbled, which usually means someone’s fibbing somewhere.

Justin Warner, 27, self-taught chef-owner of Brooklyn’s “Do or Dine”; he was a waiter when he and a buddy decided to open a restaurant, not knowing how to cook anything normal. So they went for joke food. Fois gras doughnuts. Tempura’d deviled eggs. It got a good review from the New York Times – “The whole scene sounds too ironic, too hipster-ish, too Brooklyn. Instead, it is charming.” I hate him already. Seriously, I do – he was the guy on “24 Hour Restaurant Battle” who created “& Jelly” and treated everyone, including his teammate, like dirt. I hate it when this kind of “I don’t need to learn how to cook because I’m a genius who puts taco toppings on gyoza and everyone loves it” fraud gets rewarded. He must be the season villain, which means he’ll be around for a while. I love that he’s on Alton’s team. I think Alton can handle someone who won’t listen to anyone. Squash him like a bug, Alton!

Emily Ellyn, 29, CIA grad, spent time in Paris, and is pursuing a PhD in hospitality (in Orlando, where else). And she’s currently working at a gourmet donut shop, expanding the gourmet doughnut scene, which shows you how misleading the resume can be. She grew up on a farm and knows how to butcher a chicken. C-POV is something incoherent about relationships and retro rad; is that like Nadia G, or is it one of those things I’m too old to get? “I’m going to be funny, smart, cute as a button.” What she’s gonna be, is toast. Though she may appeal to Alton, who quit his videographer job and went to culinary school for two years so he could make his “Mr. Wizard/Julia Child/Monty Python” show.

Martie Duncan, “slightly over 40” (now that’s trouble, when someone won’t admit her age; on her video she says “somewhere over 30”), from Alabama. She’s a party expert. She claims to have done a lot of different things – police officer, cattle round-up in Argentina, hiking up a volcano – which, considering she can’t tell the truth about her age, doesn’t impress me much.

Judson Allen, 30, self-taught with a Bachelor’s in Food Science (aren’t those two different things?) and restaurant trained (make that three different things), now runs a catering company in Chicago. He lost 100 pounds so he wants to cook healthy, and he learned Creole cooking from his NOLA grandfather. He’s the architect of flavor, bringing in cultural influences. He and Alton can reminisce about all the weight they lost.

Team Bobby Flay:

Malcolm Mitchell, 41: Private chef, soul food specialist, radio personality, culinary school grad and teacher, former navy man from DC. He has a sharp, professional website, a CAA agent and a PR flack. Doesn’t every cook? I like the dreads, but I’ve always liked dreads. On paper, he’s great. We’ll see how he does.

Eric Lee, 44, CIA grad and UCLA sociology major; he cheffed at a California winery for 11 years, so wine features prominently in his dishes. His mom had a bakery. His bio says something about deconstructing, which can get awful in a hurry, but when done right, it’s pretty cool. He’s Asian, and if they do to him what they did to Susie Jimenez last year, I’m gonna be really mad. Cooking in Wine Country – again, with the fresh local ingredients. Does anyone ever say, “I want to cook out of cans?” Besides the First Lady of New York, of course.

Nikki Martin, 31, self-taught private chef in West Hollywood, and a food and beverage consultant, which seems to mean opening a restaurant with someone else’s money. C-POV is SoCal comfort with a twist of sexiness. I still don’t know what sexy food is, but it usually means runny egg yolks. She has the kind of personality that goes over well on tv.

Kara Sigle, 31, Chicago caterer and fitness guru. They have a “health” oriented chef on every time, and it never works. But she’s got the “food is a story, a memory” spiel down, and she doesn’t mention healthy food, so maybe she got that memo.

Michele Ragussis – 42, NY/New England, executive chef experience, seafood specialist; she was on Chopped (lost) and 24 Hour Restaurant (won). I don’t clearly remember her, possibly because her Chopped episode was the one that introduced Madison Cowan and Lance Nitahara, the best things to ever come out of the Food Network. Seems she used to work at Beast, Naomi Pomeroy’s restaurant. This could be good. She looks vaguely like Elizabeth Falkner. Not sure if that’s good or bad.

Team Giada DeLaurentiis:

Phillip “Ippy” Aiona – 23, culinary school grad, exec chef, but don’t take that too seriously, it’s at his mother’s Italian restaurant in Hawaii. His C-POV is Euro-Pacific, combining his Italian and Hawaiian heritage. That’s unique right there. He made cooking videos in third grade. He’s awfully young, but since when has TV had a problem with that.

Yvan Lemoine, 30, originally from Venezuela. His CV is very impressive: he went through C-CAP (the Culinary Arts program Marcus Samuelsson supported in the recent Chopped All-Stars) and has apprenticed with the likes of Cyril Renaud, Jacques Torres, and Jahangir Mehta; he’s worked all over New York. In addition to pastry, his thing is a combination of molecular gastronomy and mixology – yes, liquid nitrogen frozen drinks, drinks served in an ice cream cone, and like that. He owns iFood Studios which seems to be an excuse for putting videos all over YouTube. Most of them are 5 years old (and several are of Spanish-language television appearances), so I’m thinking he’s improved since then.

Linkie Marais, 28, originally from South Africa (does that mean “Linkie” isn’t a cute nickname she got when she was three years old, I hope?), owner of Cakes by Linkie, where she makes some decent cakes – but why isn’t she on whatever show that was to replace Duff? Maybe she was, obviously I didn’t watch. C-POV: Food is art. And cake decorating is fun. Ok, I believe she’s good at that – but can she cook?

Josh Lyons, 42, former rock musician, culinary school grad, former touring rock musician, now makes sushi, thus he is the Rock & Roll Sushi Chef. He’s a fair singer. But I’m getting tired of all the shtick.

Martita Jara, 35, self-taught home cook and interior designer in California with “a few semesters” of culinary school. Her parents have a Mexican restaurant. She wants to simplify the food her mother and grandmother made; that’s tailor-made for FNS. She’s ahead in the “who do you like” poll, which is interesting since the series hasn’t started yet.

Of course, no one turns out like their casting video. But on paper, Alton should just stay home. Right off the top, I’m thinking Martita, Yvan, Ippy, Nikki, Eric, Malcolm.

A “Casting Special” airs on Saturday, May 12 at 9pm; the series actually starts on Sunday, May 13, at 9pm.

Louise Erdrich: “Nero” from The New Yorker, May 7, 2012

New Yorker photo by Birthe Piontek: "Front Yard"

New Yorker photo by Birthe Piontek: “Front Yard”

As I looked into his eyes, which were the same brownish gold as mine, I had my first sensation of self-awareness. I realized that my human body, my human life, was arbitrary. I could have been a dog. An exhilarating sadness gripped me, and I felt the first intimations of sympathy for another form of creation, for Nero, who had to eat guts from an old pie tin.

Girl meets guard dog. Girl looks in dog’s eyes and realizes girl could have been dog. Girl is sad.

Girl’s grandfather, with whom girl is living for a few weeks while girl’s mom has baby, is tough old coot and grocery-store-butcher-shop-slaughterhouse owner who establishes tough-cootness and disappears from story:

[My grandfather] slept behind a locked door with my grandmother on one side of him and a loaded gun on the other. This was not a place where a child got up at night to ask for a glass of water.

Girl’s grandmother is likewise tough old bird who hands girl pie plate of offal to feed dog and leaves her with valuable life advice: “Throw down the guts if he rushes you.”

Who’s left? Uncle Jurgen, who slaughters the animals by wrestling them into submission, letting them struggle and wear themselves out until he can slit their throats with the precision needed to collect the blood for blood sausage.

Hmmm. You might not want to read this story over lunch.

Uncle Jurgen’s also in a perpetual struggle with Nero – who works as guard dog at night in the store – building the fence in the back yard higher and higher to keep Nero from escaping. But Nero keeps trying to run away during the day because he’s in love with Mitts.

Oh, yeah, Mitts. Priscilla owns Mitts, a vicious little cocker spaniel who bites anyone within reach. Priscilla breeds to a “papered stud” once a year so she can sell the puppies.

Nobody knew if Mitts preferred Lord Keith to Nero, because she bit every dog and person within her reach. Priscilla, with her bandaged fingers, often had to cope with Nero’s longing, but she never called the city dogcatcher.

Priscilla is the bookkeeper at the store-butchershop-slaughterhouse. At twenty-five, she still lives with her saloon-keeper father, who insists on fighting all of her beaux when they start to show more than casual interest. She’s been ok with this since no one’s really grabbed her fancy… until now. She and Uncle Jurgen are getting serious, as we used to say back when “hooked up” described telephones, not relationships.

Girl goes to visit Priscilla:

When Priscilla answered the door, Mitts barked viciously and darted for my ankle, but Priscilla elegantly kicked her dog down the hall with the pointed toe of her shoe. Mitts rolled, skidded, and trotted sullenly before us into the kitchen. She slumped in her pillowed corner, glowering as only a cocker spaniel can glower, while Priscilla sat me at the table and warmed some sugared milk with a bit of coffee in a small blue pan. She also made me cinnamon toast.

One of the charms of this story (which I did like, in spite of my half-assed way of discussing it) is that the lines between people and animals keeps getting blurred. I kept thinking Priscilla was slumped and glowering, and I’m still not sure who the warm sugared milk with coffee –today we’d call it latte – was for.

Another thing I like about this story: it’s told in first person from the girl’s point of view, but from the vantage point of the future, when all the lessons have been digested and the import of it all has been realized. We’re never told exactly how these events affected the girl, but they must be significant to her. This piece started as a memoir – the visit, the grandparents, the store, the dog, the realization, are all real; the skinny uncle and Priscilla, along with her dog and her father, are fictional.

The actual plot of the story – that above is all just background, see? – starts when Mr. Gamrod insists on his traditional fight with Uncle Jurgen if he wants Priscilla’s hand. Gamrod is the odds-on favorite, since he bounces drunks regularly and Jurgen is a scrawny little thing.

During the fight, the little girl remembers a traveling animal show that visited her school once. It’s the sort of thing no principal would allow today – bringing pythons and tarantulas into an elementary school auditorium, god, the liability – and it’s kind of a hilarious scene, in a Northern Plains Keystone Kops way. The python escapes and squeezes the presenter, the tarantula goes flying “like a flailing discus,” and all hell breaks loose. This is the image the little girl remembers as Uncle Jurgen fights Mr. Gamrod just like he slaughters animals – without the throat slit, of course.

Mr. Gamrod is changed by the experience:

Mr. Gamrod could not stop talking about his trip to the other world….how in the clutch of Jurgen’s limbs he had died and come to life again. He had not walked into the light. He had not seen Jesus. The only way he could explain it was to say that he had been suspended in a timeless present that held the key to…something. He’d felt his arm pound the earth just as he was about to grasp the meaning of it. A few days later, he realized he was no longer afraid. After death he would understand the answers to questions that in life he couldn’t even put into words. Aside from this new assurance, Mr. Gamrod didn’t seem much changed.

I like the change that doesn’t seem to be a change, as though Gamrod is deflecting his shock at losing by any means available.

As Uncle Jurgen wins his right to Priscilla, he comes up with a plan to keep Nero penned: he puts electrified wire around the top of the now-eight-foot fence. I like that, too: his freedom, and Nero’s, come to an end at the same time. Except he’s giving his up voluntarily.

Now it’s time for the little girl to go home, but on a family visit six months later, she finds Nero in bad shape. He now lives in a chicken coop and has broken his teeth on an iron cauldron. He’s useless for guard dog duty, but the store has an electric security system now. Eventually Uncle Jurgen and the little girl take him out in the back woods and shoot him.

It’s a little off-kilter, this story. You know how sometimes the sound track and picture are a little out of sync on a tv show or movie – not much, just a microsecond, and everything just seems off though you can’t clearly see the lips are moving before the sound? That’s a little like what it is. The humor doesn’t quite come off. In fact, it took a while to realize there was humor. Everyone has their realization, but the realizations aren’t united; they aren’t the same, of course, because that would be corny, but they just seem… disjointed. Like refracted light.

Erdrich explains some of this in her Book Bench interview with editor Deborah Treisman:

You probably read more short stories than anyone else on earth, so you know the rules. If a person gets romantic justice in the story, the dog must suffer, or vice versa.

I did not know there was a Rule of Balanced Romantic Justice for Dogs and People. But it makes sense there would be. Too much parallelism would be Lifetime Movie territory.

I get the “Call of the Wild” thing about confinement, freedom, breaking. Do they really work together, though? The story reads heavy to me – almost ponderous – in places where it should be lively and fun. I’m all for the rule of opposites in fiction – treat the trivial seriously and the serious lightly, balance out content and tone – but somehow it doesn’t quite work for me here. It’s worth a read, though. Just not over lunch.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Alice Mattison, “The Vandercook” from Ecotone, Spring 2011

Ecotone photo: Sax

Ecotone photo: Sax

I thought of something else my father had said when he said that Gil had secrets: that he himself had secrets, and that I did, and Molly didn’t. Molly held the secret of her unpredictable self, but did she have no secrets of the conventional sort? Some of my secrets had to do with Molly. I had not kept secret from her how I felt about the incidents in which I felt she’d been unfair in the past – far from it – but I’d kept secret how I counted and reconsidered them.

As I read this story, I thought of something Roger Ebert wrote once about the car in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday: “how much the movie’s opening scenes benefited from the character of his automobile…” The Vandercook – an old-fashioned letterpress printing press – has a similar function in this story, as an exquisite symbol of an abstract concept: the past, which stalks the narrator throughout. I call it exquisite because the printing press, in addition to conveying the image of something from days of yore, perfectly embodies the function of the Past-as-Character, which is: to record, inform, remind.

As you may have guessed, I really liked this story. It’s available online at Ecotone – a journal whose motto is “Reimagining Place.” For them, place goes way beyond the city, the latitude and longitude, and in this story, encompasses the entire situation. As in the psychobabble phrase: Lorenzo’s in a bad place. Which he is.

Lorenzo, his wife Molly, and his two sons are living in California when his dad decides to retire from his New Haven print shop after suffering a heart attack. Molly, who’s just had a fight with her boss, decides to take over the family business. Lorenzo’s ok with that, even though he thought her boss was in the right, so they move back East.

Enter Past-as-Character.

Lorenzo isn’t totally inexperienced with the Vandercook: his grandfather introduced him to it, and he’s been doing some work with a local printer though he’s not really talented. Gil started working at the shop when he was a stupid teenager, and now, in his 50s, has managed the place for years.

Along the way, Lorenzo starts dealing with his own recollections. You know how you overlook some things, especially early in a relationship, because you aren’t sure if they’re character flaws or fleeting errors in judgment? Well, these are beginning to pile up – “When several events in my life with Molly might have made me take heed, I did not take heed” – and he’s seeing Molly in a new light, remembering things such as her fight with her boss, and this post-coital session:

I was easing into sleep at last when Molly said, “There are people I could kill if I had to, and people I couldn’t kill, no matter what.”
“Where do I fit?” I said. I was used to being startled by what she said, but she still regularly startled me.
“I think I could kill you,” she said. “I mean if I had to – say, to save the life of one of the children. I could shoot you or stab you.”

What Molly had said seemed funny, but it wasn’t simply funny. The next morning, working on my big job at the back of the store, I was still thinking about her cool assessment as to whether she could kill me. I knew she wasn’t a murderer and wouldn’t become one: what interested me – and, okay, scared me – was her freedom of thought.

Past-as-Character is fully realized when the block is turned into a movie set from the 30s. And things come to a head when the shop is vandalized, and Molly makes some ugly racist assumptions about Gil and plans to fire him.

The primary conflict is between Lorenzo and himself. What do you do when you realize the person you’re married to is, well, not up-to-snuff, morally? When you know what the right thing is, but you can’t face the consequences of doing it? When you realize the moral failing is actually your own: “I needed to become someone I was not, someone who’d know what to say. It was too late.”

I’m interested in some sentence-level elements. There’s a lot of word-phrase repetition – “Molly was restless – she did not rest”, and “take heed” above. This stood out to me, and not all that pleasantly, though I can see the contextual reason for it in most cases – “she did not rest” is very different from being “restless”. In spite of those minor and infrequent hiccups, the story was highly readable, with smooth narrative flow and a satisfying, if ambiguous, ending. As Laura Furman says in her Introduction: “The beauty of the story lies in its sense of the continuity of the lives narrated.” I can see several ways this story could go on, each equally plausible. I like that. And I like that I’m interested enough to imagine the scenarios, but not frustrated that the author didn’t tell me which one – if any – will come to pass.

Lots of universal issues here. We’ve all struggled with things we shouldn’t have overlooked, and wondered later why we didn’t take heed. When to speak up, when to let things pass, how much leeway we give someone we love. And with how much responsibility we actually bear when we feel victimized.

On a more personal (and less profound) level, I lived on Beacon Hill in Boston back in the 70s when a brief scene from a (truly terrible) 50s movie was shot – and I saw all that goes into transforming a street, from blocking traffic to bringing in antique cars (hah, 50s cars weren’t antique back then, just old) to spraying the sidewalks with foam to simulate snow; it took all day to get 10 seconds on the screen. As well, I have an enjoyment of all things paper, including printing – I browse office-supply and stationery stores for fun, the way most women browse shoe boutiques. I have a perfectly good pair of shoes, why would I browse for more? Pens, inks, papers of different weights and finishes, end papers – now that’s stuff worth browsing.

And the god of Coincidence made sure the library copy of Just My Type: a book about fonts, which I requested back in February when it was acquired, came in just as I was reading this story. I swear, it really did – I have the email to prove it.

So it might be that this was the Perfect Storm of stories for me. No, not Perfect. Not even Great. That’s ok, Very Good will do just fine.

Sunday With Zin: and Italo Calvino – Six Memos For The New Millennium, Part II: Quickness

Emblem by Paolo Giovio, 16th Century: Festina Lente

Emblem by Paolo Giovio, 16th Century: Festina Lente

From my youth on, my personal motto has been the old Latin tag, Festina lente, hurry slowly. Perhaps what attracted me, even more than the words and the idea, was the suggestiveness of its emblems. You may recall that the great Venetian humanist publisher, Aldus Manutius, on all his title pages symbolized the motto Festina Lente by a dolphin in a sinuous curve around an anchor. The intensity and constancy of intellectual work are represented in that elegant graphic trademark, which Erasmus of Rotterdam commented on in some memorable pages. But both dolphin and anchor belong to the same world of marine emblems, and l have always preferred emblems that throw together incongruous and enigmatic figures, as in a rebus. Such are the butterfly and crab that illustrate festina lente in the sixteenth-century collection of emblems by Paolo Giovio. Butterfly and crab are both bizarre, both symmetrical in shape, and between them establish an unexpected kind of harmony

Hello, I am Zin, and it is time for the “Quickness” chapter of Six Memos! Again I will be looking at “Millennium House” by Richard Osgood to see how these ideas were incorporated (my first post on Lightness has an introduction if this does not make sense to you).

The art above is the butterfly-and-crab motif by Paolo Giovio that Calvino is talking about in that opening quote! The motif was surprisingly hard to find (the dolphin and anchor is much more common) but I finally located it, along with the dolphin-and-anchor and a rabbit-and-snail-shell, on the blog of calligrapher/correspondence artist Mara Zepeda in a post including the above paragraph from the Memo on Quickness!

This is something I am discovering: artists in many media are very fond of these Six Memos! In the Lightness post, I included a listing by an artist of qualities associated with Lightness and Heaviness; and now I am finding that visual artists all over are using these Memos! For example:

Susan Fell-McLean did an ArtCloth exhibition inspired by the five qualities at the Shepparton Gallery in Victoria, Australia!

Illinois artist Timothy Campbell came across the Memos as recommended reading while researching architecture (which is so cool, just like Richard!) and made a signpost after finding them useful in his work: “I found that keeping his lecture topics—lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, and consistency—on a slip of paper in front of me when I wrote helped me immensely. Whenever I would get stuck on an idea I would refer to the topics and evaluate what I had written. My intention is for this little painting to function as a helpful signpost for an artist of any medium.”

Sarah Tripp from Glasgow has created gnommero, “an ongoing publication” that “presents artists’ and writers’ responses to Italo Calvino’s series of published lectures…” Is this cool or what? I only see three so far, Lightness, Quickness, and Exactitude, but I hope more are forthcoming!

And composer Christopher Trapani wrote a “collaborative multimedia work for six instruments, live electronics, and live video, inspired by Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium” including long distance collaborators live video duo Things Happen from Madrid, which premiered at the Columbia University program “Ghost in the Instrument: Festival of Musical Interactivity.” A brief (2 minute) preview is on YouTube! Or you can read more about the process at the Festival website (Scroll down about half way).

So the Memos inspire all manner of artists!

I will get on with “Quickness”! Quickly! I see four main ideas: rhythm, economy, manipulation of time, and the combination of Hurry Slowly.

First, rhythm. Calvino starts the lecture with a legend of Charlemagne and other folk tales and fairy tales to illustrate his value of Quickness. It is easy to follow and to explain it here would be to copy it all.

Once again, sometimes it is hard to see how to incorporate some of the ideas into most stories. Like the idea of magical objects, which fairy tales have narrative function: “the plot can be described in terms of the change of ownership of a certain number of objects.” I am not sure why this is part of Quickness, but I can see how it works in his examples, and it is obvious how it worked in “Millennium House” – the house itself is a magic object! And the change of ownership from builder to the man who asked for the house in the first place moves the plot, is the turning point!

Rhythm and repetition of events also function as elements of Quickness: “]ust as in poems and songs the rhymes help to create the rhythm, so in prose narrative there are events that rhyme.” I love this idea: I think of it as symmetry or parallel structure, maybe. In fairy tales, the hero tries and fails twice then succeeds on the third try, that is rhythm! It sets up a familiar structure so you know where you are in the story! In fact, one of my complaints when I saw the movie Hugo was that in two cases (getting the key and getting the old man to enjoy movies again), the kid tried to do something and failed, then tried again and succeeded; I was so annoyed that first of all it was too symmetrical, two and two, and second, that only two attempts were needed! Maybe three would have been too cliché, but the way it was, it just felt phony to me, just wrong! But the point is, events can be rhythmic, similar events rhyme whether they turn out the same or not, there is a sense of completion when it is done right!

In “Millennium House,” I see a great deal of rhythm in the prose – the words and sentences themselves, it is poetic to read. Go ahead, read it aloud, it is very impressive! I had not thought of the events rhyming. There is the request, a brief emphatic statement of narration, two paragraphs of fulfillment, and the transfer. I am not sure I see rhyme in those events, as opposed to the prose, but I do not understand this concept as well as Richard, and I may just not be able to see it!

The second element of Quickness I got from this lecture is economy! We all know those books and stories, especially the old ones we were forced to read in high school, that go on forever in places describing the grass and the sky and how the air felt on his arm hairs! And superfluous background, exposition that goes back to the beginning of time! Part of the current Code is: stay in scene, describe every sensation a character is having in an intense moment! Sometimes that too gets a bit too much! Maybe that is because it is not always handled well, but everything described should have some importance! I love a great metaphor as much as anyone, but I tend to skip over long descriptive paragraphs, and that is not good reading!

I can see all that is left out of “Millennium House.” Who is the friend who recommended the friend, does he know the builder does strange things? What kind of expression does the guy have on his face when he sees the house? I would have wanted to write a three-page dialogue with all kinds of metaphors. I am sure some people would have written this as a twelve-page story – but it is so wonderful as less than a page! That is economy! That is Quickness! This is something I need to learn!

Now, Calvino also balances Quickness as he talks about narrative time and reading time, and about manipulating these, about expanding the narrative time with techniques like nested stories (Scheherazade, that is so cool, I never thought of that, though I saw it once in a New Yorker story) and digression (my favorite hobby!). I still remember the advice Steve Almond gave in This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey: “Slow down where it hurts.” He is speaking of traditional pacing methods, the rate at which new information is revealed, or forward motion of narrative, and those are also methods of manipulating time!

I just read an example of this in the Wigleaf Top 50 Online Flashes for 2012, “Thrill of Fire” by Ryan Griffith in Night Train. It is a one-paragraph, one-sentence story that takes place in that moment the car goes over the edge of the road but before it crashes into the gully below – that is a long moment! It is a wonderful use of a second of time that stretches on forever, and the one-sentence structure elongates and quickens it at the same time! I think this is a good example of Quickness! The structure fits the content perfectly!

Digression also has value: “The digression is a strategy for putting off the ending, a multiplying of time within the work, a perpetual evasion or flight.” I am so glad, because I am all about digression! That is usually a problem, since I overdo it, but I can see how it would expand a moment in a story. I remember a Ben Marcus story which took place with him walking to the coffee cart from his desk at work! I hated that story! That was serious digression! David Foster Wallace played digression for all it was worth and I usually like that, because it is really cool digression! I need to learn more about digression, how to use it well, not how to stop using it!

In “Millennium House” I think the digression (I am not sure it can be called that) is in the description of the house, all the images brought to mind. It is almost as if we are floating in this amazing house, with milk-breath and “the incessant tick-tick of foul play” wandering around timelessly, discovering! Does this take place in two seconds, two minutes, two years? Who knows? But each metaphor has an image that is important, that adds to the image of the house – milk-breath makes me think of babies, children, the next generation, and the next and next, and tick-tock brings up time itself, eternity!

Calvino again brings in the gods of Roman mythology to illustrate this balance:

Mercury, with his winged feet, light and airborne, astute, agile, adaptable, free and easy, established the relationships of the gods among themselves and those between the gods and men, between universal laws and individual destinies, between the forces of nature and the forms of culture, between the objects of the world and all thinking subjects… Ever since antiquity it has been thought that the saturnine temperament is the one proper to artists, poets, and thinkers, and that seems true enough. Certainly literature would never have existed if some human beings had not been strongly inclined to introversion, discontented with the world as it is, inclined to forget themselves for hours and days on end and to fix their gaze on the immobility of silent words….My cult of Mercury is perhaps merely an aspiration, what I would like to be. I am a Saturn who dreams of being a Mercury, and everything I write reflects these two impulses.

But he prefers to combine Vulcan and Mercury:

Vulcan’s concentration and craftsmanship are needed to record Mercury’s adventures and metamorphoses. Mercury’s swiftness and mobility are needed to make Vulcan’s endless labors become bearers of meaning. And from the formless mineral matrix, the gods’ symbols of office acquire their forms: lyres or tridents, spears or diadems.”

Ah, the hardware-software combination again!

This balance is all part of “hurry slowly” where we began:

A writer’s work has to take account of many rhythms: Vulcan’s and Mercury’s, a message of urgency obtained by dint of patient and meticulous adjustments and an intuition so instantaneous that, when formulated, it acquires the finality of something that could never have been otherwise. But it is also the rhythm of time that passes with no other aim than to let feelings and thoughts settle down, mature, and shed all impatience or ephemeral contingency.

I keep thinking of the flash fiction, how long it takes to write a perfect tiny story – and it is appropriate (though coincidental – do you not just love that god of coincidence?) that this post follows the one on the Wigleaf 2012 Top 50 Online Flash Fictions! I become very angry with someone who thinks of Flash, or micro-fiction, as easier because it is shorter. It is because it is shorter that it is difficult! Paring things down to the essentials, that takes great time! Take for example the folk tale Calvino uses to end the Memo:

Among Chuang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. “I need another five years,” said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.

It does not take him an instant to draw the crab, it takes him his lifetime! All the experience and training and study! I remember seeing a gymnast at the Olympics, she was there to do a vault for the team competition, and that is all she did, it took fifteen seconds, but it really took enormous amounts of time and training from a very young age to do those fifteen seconds!

I also remember a story I heard many years ago, it is used in many contexts from business to art. A woman went to a famous milliner to have a hat made. He picked up a length of ribbon, turned, and his hands flew, and he turned back again and he had made a magnificent hat out of the ribbon! It was perfect! She loved it! He told her it would cost $500 and she was shocked! So much money for a piece of simple ribbon and a few seconds of his time? So he pulled one part of the hat, and it fell into a mass of ribbon again. He handed it to her: “You may have the ribbon for free.”

Do not be deceived by tiny stories, or the ephemeral. Much time, in experience and effort and learning, goes into them!

So I have learned that Quickness means economy, stripping things down to what is necessary and what serves the narrative; and it means using time, both story time and narrative time, appropriately, which may include stretching things out with various techniques. It does not mean simply speed for the sake of speed, but the quickness which is possible by much work over time.

Hurry slowly!