"Immersion in the life of the world, a willingness to be inhabited by and to speak for others, including those beyond the realm of the human, these are the practices not just of the bodhisattva but of the writer." --Jane Hirshfield

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Testing oneself

This weekend we had aikido tests. There are five levels before black belt, and each test has a list of attack and defense techniques that must be demonstrated in order to pass. When there was just one school and one teacher, the teacher could see when you were ready and give you a black belt. Now, in order to minimize the differences between black belts from one school and another, we have standardized tests. (Same reason schools give standardized tests.)

We follow rules, take tests. In Zen monasteries, there are also rules to follow. Everyone is on the same schedule, following the same rules, keeping things moving in harmony. There are koans to pass, standards to keep.

Where are the rules in writing? Where are the tests, once we're out of school? Well, the obvious answer is, there aren't any, but if you look deeper, you'll see that there are, but we have to make them up ourselves, and everything we do, school, Zen training, martial arts training, is training for this moment, when we must follow the rules we set up for our own lives, writing and otherwise, and meet our own standards. Is it easier to follow someone else's rules? Easier to go to work every day, do the household chores, respond to the needs of others, than to practice every day, write every day?

Challenging, isn't it?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

"You do not wait for fulfillment, but brace yourself for failure. So long as that is so, you have no choice but to call forth something yourself that ought to happen independently of you, and so long as you call it forth your hand will not open the right way.... Your hand does not burst open like the skin of a ripe fruit." From Zen in the Art of Archery.

Bitch Bitch Bitch

Bitch Book:
"When a man gives his opinion, he's a man; when a woman gives her opinion, she's a bitch." --Bette Davis
Bitch: What a woman gets called if she disappoints someone's expectations of perfect, enabling mommydom. Big Fat Bitch Book review.

Bitchin Doughnuts: That first cup of coffee is a big motivation for getting out of bed in the morning. But I try not to eat normal doughnuts for breakfast, much less the souped-up version: Caffeinated Doughnuts. Besides, I'd rather have that second cup.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Napkins, threats, butt prints, court-defined deviance and lame reading

-- Esquire Napkin Project: Esquire sends napkins to writers. Writers write stories on them and send them back.
-- Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk threatened.
-- Butt-print artist loses teaching job, hires ACLU.
-- Georgia teen imprisoned for oral sex with another teen.
-- Librarian or Media Specialist? Why is reading considered lame? (Who would choose the DVD of Bleak House, and who the book?)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

We are all Armenian

"We have killed a man whose ideas we could not accept," Orhan Pamuk said, when he visited Hrant Dink's home and office on Sunday.

Hrant Dink was murdered for maintaining the truth of the Armenian genocide of 1915.

Meditation, Trance, Cooking & Writing to Music

What a friend calls "trancing out" -- when you listen to music while doing some repetitive task. It's not meditation. Meditation is focused. Focusing on the task at hand is not trancing out. Trancing out is escapist. The premise is that the task at hand is too boring for your entire attention. It's not really a trance; it's just doing more than one thing at a time. In meditation, the beginner focuses mainly on the breath, which can be considered boring, if you must think that way. Do you work on detailed tasks without trancing out? Does your mind wander when the task hits a repetitive point? That's the whole point of focusing on the breath, the simplest, most repetitive thing we do, while keeping the mind focused. Once you have the focus, you can have music playing and not trance out while you work, or write. The test is this: do you feel the same way with or without the music?

For me, cooking is a better example than writing. Cooking is a repetitive task which I find neutral-to-pleasant, although time-consuming. When I am cooking, I either remember to play music or I don't, but either way, I feel the same focus while washing and chopping veggies, and timing the addition of ingredients.

Some writers like to have music playing while they write. Many do not. I'm of the silence is best opinion, but I do occasionally play music while I write or revise. When it gets distracting it has to go. I don't usually listen to music while reading, either.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Best Friends; or, Kids are a Dog Substitute

It's pretty much the accepted wisdom among one's friends that if one is childless and has animals, the animals are child-substitutes. Actually, although there were parallels when he was a pup, since he was more dependent and needed training, my adult dog is more like a friend -- albeit one I have to feed daily and let outside to poop. We've been hiking, mountain biking, to the beach, the city, the pizzeria, etc. He's up for anything, even if it means sitting in the car waiting while I'm in the bookstore.

He does like to sniff books. I imagine he thinks I am into flat, rectangular sticks, while he prefers the conventional, long, round ones. Now that he's well past lap-size, he no longer inserts himself between my eyes and the page.

Click here for fun dog book. According to NPR, more U.S. households include dogs than kids.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Zen is about reality...like it or not

The fine art of letter writing seems to be lost on the Bush Administration. Bothering elderly citizens who exercise their freedom of speech is not exactly what we were hoping for but I guess we should expect it. Yahoo news.
Should we expect this too? PETA workers helping animals by killing them? What's ethical about that? Granted, these workers were acting on their own, killing animals randomly regardless of age or health, but I'd argue this kind of thing arises from a "kill with discretion" policy such as PETA advocates. Too subject to abuse to be justifiable. Read the article.

I'm indebted to Nan Shin ("Diary of A Zen Nun") for pointing out that when we do not like to look at things like this, and choose instead to look the other way, we wind up living somewhere next to our real life, rather than in it. (I apologize for the paraphrase.)

And finally: Tell us something we don't know. Daydreaming is brain's default setting.

Himself, Herself, Themself

I hate using him. I hate using him/her. I hate using her. I hate using them, but I'm going to try to get used to it because I think it makes the most sense.

"They/them" is not even a modern usage. It dates from the sixteenth century.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Vegetarians Who Don't Eat Rice May Save the Planet

After the "Meat and the Planet" article in the New York Times (Google it if it asks for registration), which explained that keeping cows contributes more to global warming than driving cars, we now have Plows, Plagues and Petroleum, by William Ruddiman, Princeton University Press, reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement. Here is a quote from the review by Richard Hamblyn:

The really startling part of Ruddiman’s analysis comes when he looks at what happens to the climate whenever human activity is curtailed. Mysterious oscillations in the carbon signal over the past 2,000 years sent him “into the history books”, where he discovered that the steepest declines in the CO² record all occurred immediately after major plague pandemics, when population crashes saw significant areas of abandoned farmland revert back to new forest cover. The near-global Justinian Plague of 540–42 ad, for example, which killed an estimated 40 per cent of the populations of Europe and the Middle East, was followed by the first extended CO² minimum that appears in the recent ice-core record, while the subsequent plague-free interval from the 740s to the mid-1300s “correlates reasonably well with the rebound of the CO² trend”. Similarly, the Black Death of the late 1340s, which swept away at least a third of the European population, was followed by another sudden CO² decline that almost certainly played a part in the Little Ice Age, a 600-year cooling phase that began in the thirteenth century, and which ended with the introduction of modern coal-fired technology. If the Ruddiman Hypothesis is correct, it will add an entirely new dimension to our understanding of climate change, since it shows that rampant human activity has been capable not only of warming our world, but of cooling it down when it stops.

That's the book the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works should be reading. Not "State of Fear." Remember when SOF author Crichton testified that global warming was a hoax? That's Michael Crichton, science fiction author. The Republican congressman who called him, James Inhofe, from Oklahoma, must have been confused: In the phrase "science fiction," science is an adjective. It's FICTION about science, people. Or maybe they just think Americans will believe anybody whose name they hear often enough, no matter how stupid and short-sighted the testimony is.

Friday, January 19, 2007

God's Dietary Will?

Fascinating how eating and being vegetarian (or not) has been so heavily influenced by religion, and the belief that you are what you eat (eat meat to be like a lion? Really? What does cappuccino signify? That I'll be illustrating the Book of Hours soon?*). See Steven Shapin's review of The Bloodless Revolution by Tristram Stuart. I suppose it's mainly a reflection of the power the Catholic church used to have, that religion influenced every thought, from food to sex to work, etc. Now at our secular remove such religion-infused society seems a bit strange, but we use other authorities to condemn the same old sins, e.g., Obesity used to be condemned as Gluttony, and there were quite the number of required fasts.

*This is a joke. Capuchin monks are largely missionaries, who historically followed a very ascetic lifestyle. Don't know if they were also manuscript copyists. They were an offshoot of the Franciscans, whose second most famous member was William of Ockham (or, Occam), of Ockham's Razor fame. This principle of favoring the simplest solution also described the Franciscan lifestyle.

Cinema of the Spirit

Today I noticed the steeple of the Tinker Street Cinema. It used to be a church, which is apparent also from the windows on the sides (now boarded up). Probably not meant as a comment on the tendency of people nowadays to worship celebrities. They do show some very good films.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Diapering the Octopus

That is, trying to wrap up the waving loose ends of my novel without completely eviscerating the conflict, and without entertaining thoughts such as, "Is this an accurate reflection of what I want to say, my soul, my presence in the world, whatever?" and letting them derail the wrapping up process. First, does it work? Do I have something that makes sense, is interesting and does justice to my premise? Second, is this really what I wanted to say when I started this, and if not, is that a good thing?

I suppose this blog could be construed in two ways. Either I'm still buzzing with the energy of Nanowrimo month, or, I'm procrastinating about finishing the novel. I do sometimes procrastinate about finishing reading books I've really loved and don't want to end. I also wait before reading all of the author's other books, so as to save some for a rainy reading day. (Which is not likely to ever happen. I'd post my list of unread books that I already own, except that I could probably read one in the time that would take.)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

One of Those Stories You Don't Quite Believe At First

Woman dies after water-drinking contest to win Wii. Because it seems like it might almost be a joke (it isn't), the first thing I thought of was W.C. Fields' famous quote about why he doesn't drink water. I'll let you go to Wikiquote to look it up yourself. Here's a different one: "Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people."

Mother of All Stories You Don't Quite Believe at First

I was working in an office (story of my life) on the morning of September 11, 2001. I had gone out for breakfast for the whole group -- it was my turn, or I was the hungriest of the bunch. Normally, breakfast errands were risky -- we weren't allowed to leave the building except on approved errands, and we weren't supposed to eat or drink at our desks. We occasionally risked it, but this time, the boss was out of the country, and I was in the car listening to the radio and thinking about an egg sandwich. I pictured a small plane with mechanical trouble, or a pilot with serious DUI (FUI?) issues, but at some point, maybe when the second plane hit, it became obvious that it was not an accident.

Perhaps the mother of ASYDQBF for a previous generation was The War of the Worlds broadcast, but that was fictional, although it caused quite a panic at the time. (See especially the report of people shooting at a water tower, thinking it was a flying saucer.) The War of the Worlds broadcast was part of the reason that people did not, apparently, immediately believe the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor three years later. (Source, Wikipedia, op. cit.)

Chekhov, online

This is a particularly nice find, as there are so many of his stories that I've not had a chance to read, or read so long ago that I *should* read them again. (I'm going to eventually have to post about all the books I should read. But it's should in the sense of, they're great books, rather than should in the sense of, well I bought them/they were given to me, and they're sitting there gathering dust. Some of those are great books, too.) A good translator, Constance Garnett. Hers were the recommended translations when I was in college, although I've read some of Magarshack's as well -- not the same works, though. Too many books, too little time. There are notes, as well, although, doesn't everyone know what a lorgnette is? At least everyone who reads Chekhov? Or is that when I first looked it up, when I first read Chekhov? It's probably a good thing that I can't answer that question. There has to be a little free space left in the mind, some elbow room.

The Lady with the Dog. (I love the title.)

Oh, it's been pointed out that Gutenberg.org also has his work. Along with many others. A worthwhile link.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Book Club Junkie

Quality Paperback Book Club has the early softcover of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, if you’re one of those people who finds hardcovers to be just not as hand-friendly as paperbacks. Or shoulder-friendly, if you’re carrying them in your purse or pack, the way I used to when I worked in NYC. They have the hardcover of The Emperor’s Children, although the club specializes in paperbacks. I’ve belonged to them off and on since I was a kid, before the internet.

Both of these books are getting criticism based on their author or subjects being young, attractive and rich. It’s possible that people are reading them for that reason, but I don’t know why that should be a surprise. People read books about the middle class, the upper class, the destitute and marginalized, drug addicts, the homeless, about marriage, divorce, serial killers, the mob, the various ways the world might end, books by authors who are from and/or write about other cultures. There are elderly middle-class men who swear by John Updike, and young white women who swoon for Toni Morrison. Everyone either wants to read about himself, or doesn’t. Why do publishers salivate over young, attractive authors (and turn them into young, attractive, rich authors)? Opinions vary: Sarah Weinman. Last Sunday's fashion piece, It's Like Nothing, Really, in the New York Times didn't help. (Thanks to Cheryl for that link.)

Why a book club junkie age 11? The neighborhood we lived in didn’t have bookstores, just one stationery store that carried Kurt Vonnegut paperbacks. (I’m rereading Welcome to the Monkey House now.)

Two of my favorite people:

Read an excerpt from A Man Without a Country.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Some links to peruse:
Anthony Swofford's (Jarhead) new book, and why generals oppose the draft: At USA Today.
Why the Grand Canyon is ageless. At least according to some people.
Why Rumsfeld really lost his job. This last is a funny antidote to perhaps not carrying through the New Year's resolutions, if any.

On the subject of book trailers at The Writers Life. I'm in favor of whatever sells books, but didn't this function used to be performed by book blurbs? Don't people even read book jackets any more?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Not a man to argue with: Gore Vidal

I love this story: Norman Mailer punches Gore Vidal for dissing his writing. Still on the floor, Vidal said, “Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.” (I know it's old news, tell New York Magazine.)

Who would argue with a man who came back with such a rejoinder without even getting up first?

First Snow

One must have a mind of winter, and all that. Today was the first snowfall this winter where the flakes actually reached the ground and lingered. In lacy white, as if the clouds brushed off their sleeves. It's cold, too, but we'll be back to near 50 this weekend.

While you're at the U Penn site to read that poem, check out PENNsound - an archive of digital recordings of poetry.

Monday, January 8, 2007


Like trying to diaper an octopus. At least that is the image that comes to mind with my Nanowrimo novel.

Sunday, January 7, 2007


"...it dawned on me that I might have to change my inner thought patterns...that I would have to start believing in possibilities that I wouldn't have allowed before, that I had been closing my creativity down to a very narrow, controllable scale...that things had become too familiar and I might have to disorientate myself."

I've just started The Essential Interviews. The quote is from Chronicles: Volume One.

Red Devils

It has now been conclusively proven that the tenants in the attic of our house are red squirrels, as we suspected from the speed of their movements (at 6:30 am) and the fact that the outdoor areas around the house are full of chewed up hemlock cones. The proof consisted of temporarily catching one in a Havahart trap, which jammed, allowing the prisoner to escape.

Oh, and they prefer cashews to either Brazil nuts or almonds, a fact you can test for yourself by using Gorilla glue to fasten one nut of each type to the bait plate of the trap.

Update: Jan 8. We caught a red squirrel in the trap and released it in the park nearby, with a complimentary slice of bread as a consolation prize. She (you look underneath them) was attacking the bars of the cage with scary-looking teeth, and lost no time at all in pushing the trap flap open once the bar was lifted. Even better news: online sources tell me these little guys are solitary, so there might actually be a full night's sleep in my near future.

Another indie bookstore

Micawber Books, in Princeton, NJ, is the latest casualty of... what? The Internet? Bigger bookstores? Books sold at Target? The pace of American life? The former owner says that even his employees prefer gossip about TV shows to book talk. Read the NY Times article.

At least this one was purchased by Princeton University, and will be maintained as a bookstore.

We are the Romans

Canada.com ("Does America Need a Foreign Legion?") points out that at a comparable stage in their development, the Romans had to pay armies to fight for them. The local population had gotten too used to a "welfare state."

The Romans, a warlike culture, had their famously cynical slogan "bread and circuses" -- meaning that was the way to keep the population docile, and we've certainly got our share of circuses. Reality TV, celebrity gossip. If the economy keeps spiralling downward, we have to ask if it's not part of the strategy to keep the poor enlisting, not to mention an eventual result of enriching the defense industries, thereby completing a very vicious circle.

Fortunately for us, ground troops are really not necessary any more, and if people get used to eating, that's a good thing. Diplomatic and economic strategies are very effective, even if they don't redistribute money from the taxpayers to the defense industries owned by the president's friends.
More links: The Nation tells more of Lt. Watada's story, how he reached his conclusion that he couldn't support this war. Also see the link to Petty Officer Pablo Paredes' web site DefendPablo.org, for information about the navy man who refused to board his Iraq-bound ship.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Day of Reading Day of the Triffids

It's a good book, even if I flew through it because I wanted to see what happened. What happened is this *spoiler warning*: Satellite weapons that cause blindness and some kind of plague somehow are activated unintentionally, and bio-engineered carnivorous plants, Triffids, capable of walking and communicating with each other, prey upon the blinded population. Only a few sighted people are left, to try to begin again.

I like this book because it involves the confluence of a number of screwups, the accidental use of diabolical weaponry, the escape of Frankenplants, which were being cultivated for their oils, in spite of having a weapon that could kill a person or animal.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Zen of War: Commissioned Officer Refuses Iraq Deployment

"I think that when we take an oath we, as soldiers and officers, swear to protect the constitution — with our lives as necessary — and those constitutional values and laws that make us free and make us a democracy. And when we have one branch of government that intentionally deceives another branch of government in order to authorize war, and intentionally deceives the people in order to gain that public support, that is a grave breach of our constitutional values, our laws, our checks and balances, and separation of power." -- First Lieutenant Ehren Watada

Read the article.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Writing in a Journal

Journal writing is like zazen. You see the thoughts and let them go, only you write them down first.

In zazen, or sitting meditation, thoughts arise, you allow them to pass without following them to the next thoughts. In journal writing, you write them down, without trying too hard to focus them into a story, just write and move on to the next thought.

Both journal writing and zazen leave you feeling clear, empty. Sort of like writing your shopping list on a piece of paper rather than trying to keep it in your head. I usually have a pile of lists on my desk, in my purse and pockets, but my head is blissfully empty. Or should be.

~post inspired by John Wieczorek: visit him at www.soundgate.org

Agni Interview: Jane Hirshfield

"Immersion in the life of the world, a willingness to be inhabited by and to speak for others, including those beyond the realm of the human, these are the practices not just of the bodhisattva but of the writer."

Read the interview.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Nature of Reading: A Confession or a Coping Mechanism?

I confess a weakness for thinky books over feely ones. Sci fi, William Gibson, Mary Gaitskill, Doris Lessing, not an Oprah book among them. It's probably an idiosyncrasy of my own, but maybe not: If I worked at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, or even the University of Innsbruck, where they are teleporting atomic particles, I might like to kick back with a soft, feely book, but as it is, I live in a small town in the touchy-feely, codependent center of the universe, and I like to think, damnit.

Even if it is The Day of the Triffids

Ah, I know that everyone around me is reading Oprah books, and that at Princeton, they're likely to be reading at the left-brain end of the spectrum, but two paths diverged in a wood, and I'm still trying to figure out why the hell I went this way.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Happy New Year

In keeping with the saying that New Year's Eve is for amateurs (Amateurs' Night), I did not drink to excess, although I did eat sushi almost to excess.

Spicy tuna rocks.