Friday, April 17, 2015

The Magurk Effect, The Rubber Hand Illusion

(Originally Posted Novemeber 2010)
Here's a couple of weird experiments in perception that aired on the BBC's horizon. Thanks to my friend Gardner for bringing this to my attention.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Manny Blacksher Reads from the Apocrypha

Lazy rascal that I am, I'm reviewing all my old posts and re-posting some of my favorites.  Here's a reading from the Apocrypha, "The Procession into Pergamum," read by my friend, Manny Blacksher, at Sewanee.  Manny is a strange genius.  The goofy laughter you hear is mine.  This still makes me laugh.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Darwin: A Three-Page Sentence

(Originally Posted April, 2010) This is an old favorite of my sister's, a three-page sentence I wrote as an exercise.

Charles Darwin, the very model of the eminent Victorian, bald and bearded, dreamy and driven, a failed doctor, a failed priest, a failed son, collector of birds’ eggs and beetle shells, rider of tortoise backs and diner on the meat of aquatic iguanas, bearing back with him from the Beagle, along with his taxidermied specimens, that which he sensed uneasily must be more cataclysmic than the volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands or the typhoons of the far east, harder to digest than the stringy meat of the iguana and as ineluctable as the slow swell of a neap tide, tidings indeed to astonish physicians and scandalize priests, neither of which brotherhood he was destined to belong, an outsider among them as among bricklayers, engineers, sailors, and merchants, and all walks of life, being a naturalist – and what sort of vocation is that? –  an outsider to the world, in fact – the world as it was known, at least, and facts as they were known, likewise – and who better to unmake and remake the world, like Napoleon, the Corsican, remaking France, or Alexander, the Macedonian, remaking Greece, Darwin, taking up his grandfather Erasmus’ banner to be an Evolutionist, an ancient fantasy as old as Anaximander believing the Nile mud spawned tadpoles ex nihilo (Or maybe ex limus would be closer) but with a new and clarifying vision of how the deed was done, that Nature did not always achieve her ends like Newton’s clock maker, that in the bigger things, perhaps, she worked the invisible gears, springs, and flywheels of mass, energy, and Universal Gravitation, but in her detail work, she preferred a subtler device, never pushing nor pulling, but merely selecting, and in that selection, the unspoken words, “You shall reproduce, and you shall not,” what wonders and absurdities she produced, such that the Eighteenth Century Determinists, Malthus and Smith (And why stop there?  Reach even further back to Calvin, "Not elect, dear John, select, select!") would have stood agog at the simplicity and elegance of it all, an unseen hand that made not merely marketplaces, but made itself!  Finding as it stretched, its fingers and its thumb, its pronating wrist – what prodigies of beauty and repulsion, of camouflage and display, the interplay of selection and variation wrought, and man of course, by his own estimation the pinnacle of all, (Ask a Madagascar Hissing Cockroach, and you may get a very different answer.) who out-chameleons the chameleon with his stripes, and plaids, and polka-dots, and if the chameleon has eyes that rotate three-hundred-sixty degrees, the better to see a tasty dragonfly no matter the approach, why we have eyes detachable, to leave behind and spy on nannies or the scoff-laws scooting under red-lights, and though every back-boned species, by stern effort and time’s permission, has sent at least one representative to the congress of the air – the flying fish, the bat, the bird, the pteranodon, the butterfly – why, we can fly while sitting down, eating bags of peanuts and watching in-flight movies, and so it came to this, that while every living thing else must perform the dance of evolution, Darwin alone was born to write about it, to what baboon screams and protests of primate rage of folks proud to be descended from drunken Noah or killer Cain but unable to abide being cousin to the unoffending bonobo, forgetting in their fury at Darwin’s implications for their own weak race, what dire news this was for God, for if the opposable thumb were carved by raw necessity from paw and thence from foot and thence from a fin, by what necessity could we invoke that God should have one, and if not a thumb, wherefore even rationality, that vaunted principle which priests say – I bet they wished they’d kept a better eye on their erring pupil while they had the chance! – man alone of nature shares with angels and with God, but which seems really just another one of Nature’s dodges from the fly-swatter of extinction, no different at its root than poison spines or mammary glands or roots themselves, now that I think of it, an expedient to ensure some bald and hornless biped gets a chance, at least once, for coitus non-interuptus, has brought us to – the subject of the sentence being, if you recall, Darwin himself, the sentence having mutated and evolved to such a state you may have forgotten its pre-Cambrian beginnings – has brought us to, I repeat, this singular point where we disbelieve that anything is singular, and as for points, could we suspend our doubt in them at all, it would only be to ask, “And the point is – what?”

Monday, April 13, 2015

Caring About Characters

It is very cold, and they are wet
(Originally posted March 2010)

I’m teaching my high school class The Great Gatsby. (In addition to being a world-famous and justly-beloved novelist, I teach high school. We all have little pet dreams, I suppose; mine has always been to be a high school English teacher; I just write novels to pay the bills until the teaching thing works out.) 

Anyway, you remember Gatsby, right? It was the book they assigned in high school only you just watched the movie and read the Cliff’s Notes. So we get to the part after Daisy, who is driving Gatsby’s car, runs down and kills Myrtle Wilson. Gatsby, who has been carrying a torch for Daisy for the last five years is naturally going to take the blame for the hit and run. And Daisy, that bitch – sorry, there’s no other word for it – is going to let him do it! She won’t tell a soul it was she, not he, behind the wheel, and she’s going to let him face, a legal expert tells me, five to twenty-five years hard time for a crime she committed.

The thing about it is, Daisy is nothing more than ink spots on a page, but when they’re arranged in certain configurations, it still outrages me.

This sort of thing happens all the time; we read about purely fictional creations – creations we know are fictional in a book with a big fat warning – “a novel” – and a disclaimer like, “Any resemblance between characters in this book and actual people living or dead is purely coincidental,” and in spite of all this, we still worry if Inspector Mudge will unmask the killer or Rodney and Darlene will find true love. 

That we care so much for people we know full-well aren’t real is like… Well, imagine a magician saying, “I’m going to reach through a hole in the top of this trick hat, through a hole in the top of this trick table where I have concealed a specially-trained rabbit which I will extract from the hat as if he had materialized from thin air.” And then the magician doing exactly that, and the rubes in the audience saying, “Gaw-lee…” as they rub their slackened jaws in stupefied amazement.

But stories get this sort of reaction all the time.

Have you ever shouted, or wanted to shout, a warning to a character in a movie. “Don’t hide under the bed! It’s the first place he’ll look!” Or been unable to sleep because you needed one more chapter to see if Bilbo was going to outsmart a dragon in a cave?  News flash, Bubba. Movie characters can’t hear you. And in The Hobbit, there is no cave, and there is no dragon. There’s the word dragon. The word cave.

Humans have this weird, almost pathological, ability to empathize. We feel sad to hear a stranger has died in an earthquake, happy when some frumpy lump turns out to have the voice of an angel, concerned when a kid floats off in a runaway balloon. (Later we’re furious – but equally entertained – that the whole thing was a hoax.) At some point, we don’t even care if the people are real, so long as the events are interesting.

This surely started at the dawn of man. Two cavemen – not Geico cavemen, the real thing – we’ll call them – oh, what’s a good caveman name? – Lamar and Loomis. They have been chasing this one mastodon across the tundra for the last week. Lamar got a good spear thrust in him, and he and Loomis left the rest of the tribe, trailing him, skirting the face of a retreating glacier. It has been a lean winter, and no opportunity for meat can be allowed to slip by.

Of course being cavemen, they have no concept of a “week,” they just know it’s been a long time since they’ve seen another human. They also know they lost sight of the mastodon two days ago, but they’ve been following its tracks. Loomis claims the footprints show signs it's seriously wounded and weakening, but Lamar isn’t so sure. Loomis says you can tell a lot from an animal’s tracks, but Loomis says a lot of things.

To make matters worse, the spring rains come early and Lamar and Loomis take shelter under an outcropping. It is very cold, and they are wet. And it is dark of a darkness none of us in our light-polluted world can ever imagine. Shut yourself in a closet, put a bag over your head, and close your eyes. It’s darker than that.

The situation is desperate to say the least. So Loomis begins talking – just nonsense, anything to take their minds off themselves. Silly stuff, the first thing that pops in his head. There’s a guy named Raindrop, and he’s on his way down the side of someone’s face, and he runs into Flea. And Flea and Raindrop have a conversation, oh, about a far-off land neither has seen, called Big Toe, and the two of them decide to set off to find it.

And at first Lamar is just listening because you can’t help listening when it’s dark and raining and cold and you’re lost and your belly’s empty and you don’t know where your next mastodon is coming from, but little by little Loomis’ magic begins to take hold. Lamar begins to wonder, will Flea and Raindrop make it to Big Toe, and if they do, what will happen there? And Loomis – who, if you remember, is making the whole thing up – begins to wonder himself, and not that it makes their lives any better, not really, but in the cold, dark, lonely rain they find themselves wondering and caring about two products of their own imagination.

And that was how the whole thing started: the wonderment we have at a story.

Do Flea and Raindrop reach Big Toe? Do Lamar and Loomis get their mastodon?


I hope all my Atlanta friends will come see me at Ivy Hall, April 28 at 6:30, where I may read this very piece.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Me Dogging Fitzgerald

I feel swallowing three such aberrations in so short a space
is too much to ask 
(Originally Posted March, 2010)

Finished re-reading The Great Gatsby.  I'm teaching it this semester to my AP class.  And yes, it's a beautiful, amazing book filled with lyricism and mordant wit, and so forth and so on.

But every time I read this book, the same part stumps me.  Everyone dogs Twain for ending Huck Finn the way he did, but for my money, the most botched ending in American Literature is the end of Gatsby.  If you haven't looked at it lately, there are a series of marvelously written scenes bringing us to the denouement when Gatsby finally confronts Tom and says, Daisy doesn't love you, she loves me.  We know, of course, what Gatsby doesn't - that what's past is past, and the lost chance for happiness can never be recovered. And that denouement, when it comes, promises the perfect fulfillment of a story that is at once tragic, comic, human, and poetic.

Only that's not the denouement.

Instead, Daisy, shaken up after the contretemps, takes Gatsby's car and mows down Myrtle Wilson, who evidently thought it contained her lover, Tom.  Gatsby, of course, noble to the end, resolves to take the fall for the hit-and-run.  Meanwhile, Myrtle's husband, with synapses that fire like molasses, has finally doped out his wife has a lover, manages through some off-stage detective work to track down the one man innocent of both his wife's death as well as her seduction and plugs Gatsby - who has conveniently chosen that moment for a late-season float in the swimming pool.

Yes, I know, Gatsby's a Christ Image.  Gotcha.  And Fitzgerald foreshadowed all of it by sprinkling car wrecks through the book like raisins in rice pudding.  Sure.  And it shows how wonderful Gatsby is, offering himself in one last gesture for the woman he loves.  If you say so.

It also lets us have the scene at Gatsby's funeral when we meet the dad.  Meeting the dad, I'll admit, is pretty cool.

But a car wreck?  How likely is it jealous Tom would leave Daisy alone with Gatsby after learning his wife and the G-Ster have been carrying a torch for each other for the last five years?  Fitzgerald manages to make even this seem probable, which is a tribute to his art.  But why would Daisy be driving? In order to calm herself after the ordeal, Nick informs us with a straight face. Yeah, right.  But buying the first two improbabilities, can anyone seriously believe that Myrtle, who has been locked in her bedroom by George Wilson, would pick the precise moment to burst from her prison and run to the street, when the tear-blind Daisy is at the wheel?

I feel that swallowing three such aberrations in so short a space is too much to ask.

What the ending does do, is tidy three loose ends: Gatsby, Myrtle, and George all get removed from the board.  And without a big crack-up, the story would not only be too short even for a decent novella, it wouldn't have enough payoff.  We've had to wade through pages of beauty, mordant wit, and lyricism, and we need a bigger punchline than what "Winter Dreams" managed to deliver in half the time.

I can almost hear my two esteemed colleagues Chris Bundy and James Iredell harumphing haughtily and setting fingertips to keypad to fire off a good, stiff rebuttal.  What about the car wreck in Lolita, I hear them cry.  You don't have any problems with that do you?  And it's at least as unlikely as Daisy's wreck.

The point is, Lolita's mother is killed at the start of the action, not at the conclusion.  I have nothing against starting a story with a far-fetched coincidence, I'm all for it.  But lugging in a coincidence to wrap up the action ain't Hoyle.  You'd hate a story, and rightly hate it too, that resolves a character's problem with a fantastic winning streak in a casino.  But would there be any serious objection to a story that began that way?  That's my whole point. Coincidences are fine for starting a story, but the unlikely payoff won't do for the end.  

And it doesn't improve matters if the slot machine comes up lemons instead of cherries.


By the way, I hope my Atlanta friends will come see me read and hold forth on Gatsby and other topics at Ivy Hall, 179 Ponce de Leon Avenue, April 28, at 6:30 PM.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

My Sister

If there's a God, and God is good, and God is all-powerful, then why do so many innocent people suffer?  

Chris VinsonhalerIt's not an original question, and I don't have an original answer.  The best and most complete answer comes from Job, which can be summarized thus: you don't know.  Unless you were there when the world was made and you can make thunderstorms and you're in charge of mountain-goats and such, you have no way of knowing why things happen the way they do, and no basis to criticize or defend them.

But at least part of the answer - and it's insufficient, but it's something - is without suffering, we'd never learn compassion, patience, and gratitude.  We wouldn't learn about love.

Recently my sister Chris went down to visit our Uncle Charles and Aunt Betty Ann.  By "down," I mean down.  Chris lives in Iowa City and they live in Pensacola.  She drove the whole way.  (Yes, she is insane.)  She'd driven down for other purposes beside that; nevertheless, she'd made a special side-trip just to see them.

My uncle and aunt are in a very bad situation.  I won't go into how bad, but it is bad.  My siblings, cousins, and I love them dearly and are working to see to it they are as safe, happy, and comfortable as can be arranged.  (Don't worry, they will never see this blog.)

Anyway, Chris drove down to help with some light packing - they'd recently moved into assisted living - and just have a general visit, but while she was there, Aunt Betty Ann had to be hospitalized.

Uncle Charles couldn't go to the hospital with her, owing to a painful and debilitating foot condition, so Chris, naturally, went with her.  My aunt, I should also mention, has Alzheimer's.

I won't go into details about the hospital stay, but you can imagine how frightening and confusing it was for Aunt Betty Ann, to be in a hospital, unable to fully grasp her situation, without the man she's lived with most of her eighty-odd years.  So Chris did the simple and logical thing.  (My eyes well up even as I write this.)  She stayed with her.  She stayed with her seventy-two hours straight.

At one point Aunt Betty Ann said, "Charlie doesn't love me."  This is a calamity.  Whatever else can be said of Charles and Betty Ann, they are devoted to each other.  Chris explained that of course Charles loves her, but was unable to come to her because of his feet.  Then Chris asked her, "Does Charles love you?"  And Aunt Betty Ann said, "Yes."
And Chris kept asking that question at intervals over the next three days.  You'd have to know Chris to know the playful, pestering way she'd have done it.  Sometimes she probably asked in a high squeaky voice like a mouse.  Sometimes she'd ask twelve times in a row in rapid succession.  Then she'd wait an hour or two, and ask again.  She'd ask first thing when Aunt Betty Ann woke up.  She'd say, "I'm going to the vending machine, do you want something and does Charlie love you?"  And every time, Aunt Betty Ann would say, "Yes.  Yes, he does."  The questioning would pass from mildly annoying, to infuriating, clean through to hilarious, and Chris would be such a nuisance about it, after a while you'd have to laugh, but the message would be sent home, even through my sweet aunt's addled mind.

Maybe love and compassion aren't quite compensation enough for the terrible suffering people go through to learn about them, but maybe they are.  Because right now I love my sister more than I ever have before.

No, that's not true.

I've always loved her this much, but I've never known it so clearly.  It hurts to know it this clearly.

We suffer but there is something it teaches us.  Do others love us?  Do we love them?  Yes, they do.  Yes, we do.  Yes.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Sudoku Curve

The point at which a problem reaches such complexity, it becomes simple.