Log in

Deep Background
Literature, Science, History, Politics, Music, Food, Geography, Parenthood

Date: 2007-10-29 13:45
Subject: Rage
Security: Public
Every once in a very great while, usually when I'm engaged in some pedestrian but maddening task of home maintenance, I have a glimpse of the slumbering primeval male animal that lies just beneath the varnished surface of my cultured, civilized self. For instance, I had a moment this weekend when I nearly threw a stepladder through a window. I was standing atop said stepladder, trying to wire a new light fixture, and things weren't going well. No matter what I did, whenever I flipped the circuit breaker back on, the light would turn on but not turn off. (This is the light at the top of the stairs, which has one of those three-way switches connected to it, and I'm sure this is the source of the problem, but I don't know what to do about it.) Keeping the white wires together long enough that I could put one of those wire cap connectors on the end proved beyond my meager capabilities. When I dropped the cap on the floor for the fourth time, I couldn't stand it any more. I jumped down, grabbed the stepladder, screamed something along the lines of, "F- you, you mother-f-ing son of a f-ing mother-fer who f-s f-ing mother-f-ers! F-! F-, f-, f-!!!", picked up the stepladder, and got ready to send it crashing through the window next to me. Some neuron in the reasoning part of my brain must have fired, because instead I just slammed the ladder against the floor a few times (probably cracked the plywood underneath the carpet), then stormed off towards the bedroom looking for something safer to throw. There was a large stuffed duck on the floor, and I picked that up and hurled it as hard as I could against the bed, ripping half the nail off my ring finger in the process. The duck bounced off the head of the bed and knocked the top part of Jen's bedside lamp to the floor; luckily, the lamp did not shatter. Then I lay down on the bed and just tried to breathe for a few minutes and calm the berserker part of my brain.

This rage of mine didn't come out of nowhere. I'd been up too late on Saturday night, and Harper had woken me up in the morning about two hours before I was ready to be awake. I was wiped out because I'd spent two hours cleaning up Esme's room, and before that I'd straightened and vacuumed the entire rest of the house, and before that I'd cut the grass. I was stressing about the fact that I needed to cook dinner before Jen went off to meet with some of her colleagues, and I knew that the dish we were supposed to have was going to take at least a couple of hours to prepare. I hadn't had the greatest weekend with Esme, for reasons I'll blog about separately, and I was ticked off that she and I hadn't been able to drive to the pumpkin patch that afternoon and pick out pumpkins together, which might have gone some way towards putting things right between us. Jen and the girls, in the meantime, were carving the two small pumpkins we'd already bought (which, in the state of mind I was in, just had the effect of needling me and making me feel reproached about the missed pumpkin patch opportunity, although that wasn't Jen's intention at all), and I much rather would have been spending time with them than doing a thankless chore that made me feel frustrated and incompetent. To top it all off, it was Sunday afternoon, which meant Monday was coming, and another week of joyless dancing for my paycheck.

Nevertheless, I find it profoundly depressing that I lost it so completely over such a trivial matter. It's the kind of thing that makes me despair for humanity. I felt ashamed to be around people last night, and today I feel like I'm recovering from an ordeal; my legs and shoulders are sore, I can't stop grinding my teeth, and only a large dose of aspirin is keeping me from being disabled by a killer headache. I don't know what kind of dreams I was having last night, but even though I was asleep for almost eight hours I feel completely unrested. If I hadn't had to come to work, I probably would have spent the day in bed.

There's a new book out by Philip Zimbardo, the guy who devised the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment back in 1971, where he talks about the ample research that shows how situational factors have a stronger effect than inherent personality traits in determining how an individual will behave in a given scenario. Zimbardo's main objective in the book is to explain how something like Abu Ghraib can happen, but I think his theory also has pertinence to my behavior yesterday. I don't mean to say, "The situation made me do it." But long before I exploded in rage, I should have recognized that I wasn't in the right frame of mind to tackle a job that was bound to make me crazy. I created a situation that had a better-than-even chance of ending with me screaming obscenities and throwing a stuffed duck across the room, and that's a situation I should have avoided.

Jen sent me an Arborparents posting from a parent who was advocating a particular method of teaching children self-control. But maybe the key isn't to learn self-control; maybe the key is to learn how to avoid those situations where self-control will be impossible.
Post A Comment | Share | Link

Date: 2007-10-23 23:36
Subject: Clever little pumpkin video
Security: Public
Halloween Awakening
Post A Comment | Share | Link

Date: 2007-10-16 00:55
Subject: Role playing at Red State Update
Security: Public
For those of you who have not yet discovered Red State Update, their latest video is a great place to start. The first time I saw these guys, I wasn't sure how to respond, because it seemed like they might be just a couple of guys from New York playing stupid hicks, which would be a one-note, not-very-funny premise, like that horrible Geico Neanderthal sitcom. Then I watched a few more, and something clicked, and I couldn't stop laughing. As with most great humor, Red State Update works because the characters are so loveable, which probably comes from the fact that the two actors who play the parts actually do come from small-town Tennessee, even though they've since moved to LA, so they're portraying people they know well. They inhabit the characters so completely, it's really bizarre to see them out of costume. The character of Dunlap (the young one) is whip-smart but lazy, savvy about world events but unmotivated to do anything but drink beer and find creative ways to jeer at liberals and send Jackie Broles (the old one) off onto one of his legendary rants. The more you watch, the more you get to know about them; for instance, Jackie loves animals, and Dunlap loves smashing things. They may not be to everyone's taste, but they brighten this bluest blue-stater's day.
Post A Comment | Share | Link

Date: 2007-10-12 02:23
Subject: From "The Implied Author"
Security: Public
The literature buyer where I work saved me a copy of Orhan Pamuk's new book, Other Colors: Essays and a Story, and I read the first couple of pieces tonight. I especially liked this passage from the opening essay "The Implied Author":

... for thirty years, I have devoted all my strength to becoming the implied author of the books I long to write. It is not difficult to dream a book. I do this a lot, just as I spend a great deal of time imagining myself as someone else. The difficult thing is to become your dream book's implied author. Perhaps all the more so in my case because I only want to write big, thick, ambitious novels, and because I write so very slowly.

This quote explained to me a lot about why I sometimes succeed and more often fail as a writer. When I've succeeded most recently, for instance, in my Ann Arbor Paper gig, I've adopted a different identity, a persona. I distinctly remember, as I was starting to write those articles, imagining the sort of person who would write a column like "Deep Background", or more to the point, the version of me who would write such a column. I even gave this version of me a different name, and on the days when I was working on an article, I would be conscious of seeing things around me in a Drew Franklin sort of way. It was liberating, especially when the voice began to take on a life of its own.

Looking back some years to the time when I was still writing a lot of short stories, I remember having a continual sense of needing to stretch and push myself, to read more deeply and pay more attention to things because only that way would I be able to write the stories I wanted to write. Part of the reason I stopped writing stories for several years was because I concluded I couldn't be the writer I wanted to be simply by writing a lot. I felt I was suffering from certain character flaws that too often impaired my view of other people, so that my characters would behave in ways that weren't quite believeable. I also felt I needed to rid myself of a lingering adolescent fascination with some banal ideas, like the tragedy of life's brevity or the beauty of the doomed rebel. It wasn't that I necessarily gave up writing fiction; truer to say that I gave up trying to pretend I was already what Pamuk refers to as "the implied author" of the books in my head and began the process of actually becoming that implied author; I knew enough to know that only time and experience were going to give me what I needed to write the kinds of books I wanted to write. Going back to school to study History, I realize now, has been part of that process.

But there is another way to come at writing, which is to take a look at the self that you have and try to imagine what kinds of books such a self would write; what are the implied books that someone of my background, interests, and life situation would be likely to write successfully; or rather, to stick with Pamuk's formulation, what are the books for which I am the implied author? I've been working in this mode for the past several weeks, writing a story I'll eventually be able to read out loud to Esme, and it's working just fine. The danger of this approach is that it's easy to tell yourself you have nothing of interest to say just as your boring self, so that everything you try to write seems pointless. But I know what will be interesting for Esme; pointlessness is not a problem here. Writing essentially for an audience of one is liberating in a different kind of way from writing as Drew Franklin, but it's liberating nonetheless.
Post A Comment | Share | Link

Date: 2007-10-10 01:02
Subject: The horror, the horror
Security: Public
I went back to high school tonight. This was the second time. The first time was September 10th, "Capsule Night," when Jen and I scrambled from classroom to classroom to meet the teachers who would be generating impossible amounts of homework for our German exchange student H. Tonight was the parent-teacher conference cattle call from hell: two gymnasiums, a bunch of rickety tables with signs on them saying "Please Do Not Sit or Stand On Table", a bunch of teachers looking frayed at the edges after a full day of teaching, and a bunch of parents looking weary and grumpy as they waited in line to speak with their children's tormentors.

I will say that things have improved in the past month, at least as far as my psychological well-being is concerned. On "Capsule Night," all my PTSD triggers were firing. At the introductory assembly, when the principal stood up and started talking about "control" and "discipline," I could feel a twitch nagging at my right eye. As we moved out of the assembly hall into the bewildered throbbing parental mass clogging the hallways, my pupils dilated and I had to suppress the fight-or-flee impulse. H's period three and period four classes were on opposite sides of the building, and Jen and I both began to panic when we realized we wouldn't make it to the period four classroom before the second bell. It was exactly, exactly, like those nightmares you have where you've got to get somewhere to take a test, a very important test, but you're late and you've forgotten which room the test is in. You say you don't have those nightmares? Well, let me tell you, the reality's worse, especially when you realize how pathetic you are because it's just freakin' Capsule Night and no one is going to mark you down for walking in a few minutes late because no one cares except you.

Tonight, I was able to assume an attitude of ironic distance, maybe because the teachers were so obviously miserable in all the dispiriting gymnasium clamor, or maybe because I never had to move too far away from the multiple sets of double doors that would allow me to escape into the night if things got too hairy. As a result, I was able to have pleasant, non-confrontational conversations with the four teachers of H's that I managed to find. In fact, she seems to have a fairly delightful group of teachers. All of them, unnervingly, are my age or just a little older, and they all seemed to understand what was important; for instance, every one of them remarked on H's obvious interest in learning for learning's sake. It was so far from what I was expecting based on my memories of high school that for a moment I got a little carried away and found myself thinking, well, maybe I could stomach this; maybe teaching is something I could do after all.

Then I took another look at the Soviet-style mockery the school had made of Parent-Teacher Conference Night, and I thought, oh well, maybe not.
4 Comments | Post A Comment | Share | Link

Date: 2007-10-09 12:25
Subject: It's alive! ALIVE!!
Security: Public
We went to the bookstore on Sunday, and Esme was looking at the kids' Halloween books on display. There was a sweet one called Frankie Stein that she wanted me to read twice. The prissy literature professor in me felt compelled to explain to her that most kids' books are wrong when they call the big green monster with the bolts in his neck "Frankenstein", that in fact Frankenstein was the doctor who brought the monster to life, and that the monster is properly called "The Monster" or "Frankenstein's Monster". (Although afterwards, I was thinking that this is probably more an example of the "boycott" or "sandwich" phenomenon, where a person's name becomes the generic term for an object or action, so that a "Frankenstein" now just means any big green monster. There's probably a word for that phenomenon ... oh yes, so there is, although oddly Frankenstein is not on the list. But I digress.)

Esme wanted me to tell her the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, so I told her the bits and pieces I could remember from the book, although most of that's been obliterated by repeated viewings of Young Frankenstein. Then she asked why the monster was green. I told her I thought that came from the original 1931 movie, wherein Boris Karloff's skin was colored a greenish gray to make it look more sallow and death-like on the black-and-white film (this link is the only reference I could find online to confirm this, but I remember reading it somewhere).

As an aside, I mentioned to Esme that one of the main undercurrents of the original Frankenstein story by Mary Shelley is the deep-seated fear that the things we create will escape our control and run amok. There's an obvious analogue to the anxieties of parenthood. I'm sure every parent secretly wonders if they've unleashed big green monsters into the world. I've seen one family up close dealing with the specter of a child-turned-monster because of drug addiction, and I also have relatives who are trying to find a way to help a child who is probably schizophrenic and may pose a danger to herself and the people around her. Self-appointed authorities like James Dobson and Dr. Phil have parlayed parents' fears of the Frankenchild into fat bank accounts for themselves by promoting the illusion that kids can and should be "controlled." But when the child has reached the age of maturity, any question of control is out of the question. Life truly becomes like one of those waking nightmares where everything you do seems futile; all you can do is keep knocking and hope your child will let you in before he or she causes a catastrophe.

Of course, children are not the only things we create. The Frankenstein trope has become cliche when applied to techonological change, from the split atom to the test tube baby, from pesticides to plastics. Sci Fi writers have found endless variations on the theme, from Alien, where humans "give birth" to hideous green monsters, to The Matrix, where humans give birth to AI only to see it take over the world. In the real world, we've seen European protests against "Frankenfoods."

Now there's a new development from Craig Venter that's almost certain to trigger a cavalcade of Frankenstein references: his company is close to creating the first life form where the genetic code was constructed in a laboratory. This is really a staggering development, easily matching the first atomic explosion in the magnitude of its significance for the planet's future. As a technological feat it far outstrips the moon landing. This moment has been on the horizon for many years now, and some people, mostly those who view such a development with unmitigated horror, have tried to force discussion of the many ethical and philosophical issues it inevitably raises. But I think for most Americans, the downsides of creating designer organisms won't be anything to worry about until they are affected directly and negatively. The ethics will follow the technology, as will the effects on our philosophy, which could very well be profound. Within the next couple of decades, I'm sure, artificial organisms will have their Marshall McLuhan. But in the meantime, the technology will come, and being the utilitarians that we are, Americans will adopt it and incorporate into our lives in ways we aren't even aware of, just as we've done with GMOs and plastics and all the other things that have raised the specter of Frankenstein in the last century.

Nevertheless, I think we're on the brink of a world that's different in ways we can't even really imagine. I suppose the same could be said of the world in 1439, roughly the year that Gutenberg invented moveable type printing in Europe, and the world in 1905, the year Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity. It's a world where our children and children's children will find new and horrible ways to be monsters, and for those of us who are old enough to remember the pre-Venter era it will often feel like a waking nightmare. But even though I don't think I particularly look forward to that future world, I'm not especially depressed about it. I'm sure our descendants who grow up sharing the world with all sorts of fantastic laboratory concoctions will say, as most of us say today, that they wouldn't want to live in any other time.
Post A Comment | Share | Link

Date: 2007-10-03 14:04
Subject: Radio silence
Security: Public
Sometimes it's just overwhelming, this whole business of existing. You know what I mean. First of all, you have to get out of bed, preferably without waking up whomever else may be in your bed. Then you have to assemble something approximating a public face that won't make people want to flee your presence. You have to make a mental checklist of the things you intend to accomplish that day but probably won't because you know some stupid shit's going to come up that'll throw everything off the rails. Then you have to get in the car or whatever transportation you're using (you mean to be using public transportation a lot more, don't you? But you're not) and go to work. Then you have to "work." The way your "work" makes you feel is indescribable. It would take a novel to explain, but you don't have the energy to write the novel, so you just tamp it back down and pretend to find things you actually care about in this crappy place where you spend 1/3 of your life. Then you have to come home and cook dinner and get the kids bathed and read books to them and get them into bed. This part of the day is actually pretty great all around, but you can't bring much energy to it because you're on a perpetual treadmill of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. Now everyone else is asleep and you get your "me time." You feel like you'd better do something productive with it, something that's really for yourself, so you do your best to ignore the disaster in the kitchen and the chaos of toys and clothes and crap left everywhere by your kids and try to get some reading done, or, if you're feeling really inspired, maybe a little writing. You make a mental checklist of the things you want to accomplish over the coming weekend ... cut the grass, clean up the dog poop, buy groceries, install a light fixture, clean up your desk, pay the overdue bills, go for a walk in the woods, bake something, do something non-boring with the kids ... knowing you'll maybe get to about two of them. You fall asleep in your chair. At some point you have to stumble upstairs and fall into bed. Four to five hours later, you wake up and it starts all over.

Then you have to fucking blog about all that shit.

OK, it's not really that bad. I sound clinically depressed, but I'm not, at least no more than usual. Just weary. I realized right around the time I stopped blogging, about a week before my 37th birthday, that I had not even begun to recover from the ordeal of the previous school year. Something had to give, and as usual what gave first was the writing, which included the blogging. About six weeks ago, after we got back from our New York City vacation, I felt like I was ready to start writing again, but instead of blogging, I started writing a story, a chapter book for kids, something I can read to Esme that she'll really enjoy. That's where my energy's been going, that and sketching the vague outline of a Master's thesis in my head.

Now I suddenly realize I've stored up a whole lot of mental bric-a-brac to blog about. So I'll be updating this a lot more often. I don't have the capacity to blog nearly every day like our friends D and B at Full of Baby, and I don't have the capacity to write full-length essays like my pal Greg over at ConnectedGraph, and I don't have the capacity to produce the gems of prose Dutch writes at Sweet Juniper!, but I'll do my best not to lapse into total silence. At least not until the next time.
5 Comments | Post A Comment | Share | Link

Date: 2007-10-01 01:47
Subject: It's been a long time ...
Security: Public
... more than three months, but I'm just about ready to start posting again for real. For the moment, let me just pass along the extremely exciting news that Radiohead has figured out how to circumvent and potentially destroy the corporate music industry once and for all. They're selling their new album by download for name-your-price. If you want a physical CD, they'll send it to you with a full second CD of new stuff, plus two vinyl records, plus a whole bunch of extras for about $80. Screw the labels! Screw the retailers! All hail the era of the independent artist! This is very cool.
Post A Comment | Share | Link

Date: 2007-06-21 01:59
Subject: Current favorite picture of the girls
Security: Public
Post A Comment | Share | Link

Date: 2007-06-18 23:32
Subject: Networking
Security: Public
I went through a bit of a work-related crisis a couple of weeks ago that had me thinking I should polish up the resume and start getting in touch with some former colleagues who have moved on to bigger and better, or at least other, things. One thing I did was set myself up on linkedin.com and facebook.com. (I also got myself a myspace a while back.) One pleasant surprise was that I came across a guy I knew peripherally in college named Max Gordon who I always figured would do great things of an artistic nature; he appears to be right on track. I also discovered that an old friend and former colleague who was standing next to Jen when I first met her has recently left a position as director of digital media at NPR to become a VP at Universal Music Group.

VP at Universal. The mind reels.

The experience has yielded a couple of observations. First, it's pretty obvious to me that other people are generally a whole lot better at selling themselves than I am, probably because I have yet to sell myself on my choice of career. I feel almost physically unable to present myself, on LinkedIn for example, as just a lead programmer/analyst. So I tack on some other ridiculous descriptors that tell prospective employers precisely nothing. "Voracious learner"? What the hell does that mean? "Writer"? Of what, exactly? I'm well aware that I have a deep-seated disdain for the kind of work I do, and I'm probably telegraphing it everywhere I go. For instance, I'm positively embarrassed when I meet Jen's doula clients, many of whom are U of M professors, and they ask me what I do for a living, and I tell them I'm a programmer for a big corporation. I want to crawl out of my skin. I practically apologize for not doing something more self-evidently intellectual, and I try to turn the conversation as quickly as possible onto what they're researching and writing, because it's always way, way more interesting than what I'm working on.

I'll be 37 years old next week. At what point does this feeling go away, the one where every Monday through Friday between the hours of 8:00 am and 6:00 pm I find myself wondering how I stumbled into a Kafka novel?

The second observation is that I'm fascinated by the exponentiality of the LinkedIn network. I have 42 first-level connections (a relatively high number from what I've seen). But I have over 800 second-level connections (friends of friends) and more than 107,400 third-level connections. Are there even 107,400 people on LinkedIn? It's a real-life illustration of the six-degrees-of-separation principle, and of course it seems to me there ought to be a way to put that connectedness to better use than looking for a new stupid job.

A couple of other thoughts. I've noticed absolutely no one I know in academia is on LinkedIn, although several are on Facebook. Does the network of the corporate world overlap with the network of academia anywhere other than a few odd coincidental points (like me)?

Also, going through this exercise has gotten me thinking about representations of "networks" in art. 19th-century fiction was all about the networks, of course, but only in the last several years have we started to see books set in modern times where social networks play central roles in the characters' lives, for good or ill. For instance, What Is the What is, on one level, all about networks, about the ways that connections with other people can mean the difference between life and death, and conversely it's about how frail networks can be, how people can go through the same ordeals or live in the same city or even be in the same room together day after day and have no real sense of connection with one another, and how that too can mean the difference between life and death. Never Let Me Go, on the other hand, illustrates how a network can be disastrous by reinforcing the social norm to the degree that the network's members allow themselves to be destroyed. On the other hand, I suspect what's been wrong with the post-9/11 novels we've seen from the likes of Updike and Delillo has been the fact that they've fallen back on the familiar 20th century narrative trope of the individual driven to desperation by his social isolation, when in fact the 9/11 story is all about networks: the network that brought the 20 hijackers together, the various networks that all those people in the World Trade Center were plugged into, the television networks, and the networks we don't even know (or want to know) about that are fueling our economy and our culture and sending unforeseen reverberations around the world.

The closest thing I can think of to an art form that fully embraces the idea of the network is something like Ze Frank's pioneering video blog The Show, which he turned into a kind of living network that was also an expression of his own personal artistic vision. Second Life and massive-multi-player games like World of Warcraft are often cited as examples of a new sort of communal art form, but I still think there needs to be a shaping vision like Frank's for the artistry to emerge.

The art of the network. The mind reels.
3 Comments | Post A Comment | Share | Link

my journal
July 2008