Story structure diagram

"In Praise of Public Libraries" by Sue Halpern for New York Review of Books

Sue Halpern commenting on Frederick Wiseman's Ex Libris (2017):

If you want to understand why the Trump administration eliminated federal funding for libraries in its 2018, 2019, and 2020 proposed budgets, it’s on display in this film: public libraries dismantle the walls between us.

"City as Character" by Tyler Malone for Lapham’s Quarterly

Tyler Malone on text-cities:

In text-cities like Ulysses, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Manhattan Transfer, readers walk through words and pages, experiencing a city alive, asserting its idiosyncrasy, its uniqueness — fleeting, eternal, fugitive, infinite — amid the ebb and flow of passages.


Pico Iyer on the Point of the Long and Winding Sentence

Pico Iyer:

I’m using longer and longer sentences as a small protest against — and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from — the bombardment of the moment.

Twelve of the World's Most Beautiful Bookshops

So much to like here. Have to love El Ateneo (a converted theater!!). If pressed, at the moment, I think the old Seminary Co-op would top my list, not for anything overwhelmingly beautiful about the space, but the overall feeling of submersion it always created. Books and basements. Who knew?

“Saving the Lost Art of Conversation” by Megan Garber for The Atlantic

I vividly remember witnessing what Sherry Turkle describes as being "alone together" in her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (2011). I was in Seattle on business sitting in a restaurant. At the table next to me, six or seven twenty-somethings all had their heads pointed toward their laps, tapping at their smartphones rather than interacting with one another, as they waited for their food to be served. Not healthy.

Stories Make Sense

During our holiday travels to Nevada and Utah, we went to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park. To say it was some of the most incredible landscape I’ve ever seen would be a major understatement. Bryce in particular was amazing to see, especially under a pristine snowfall. I’ve been fortunate to experience some great country in the past couple of years, Arizona’s Grand Canyon included. Like the Grand Canyon, Bryce is breathtakingly vast but it also invokes a sense of intimacy — as AG remarked, it is as if you can reach out and touch the rock while looking down from the rim. Each hoodoo, with its unique curves, cracks and colorations, seems to have a story to tell.

I guess this is what it comes down to — narrative breathes life into the abstract, stories make sense of things.

I’ve seen evidence of this over the past few days as people respond to the South Asia earthquake and tsunami disaster. Like the events of 9/11 here in the U.S., the scale of loss, the facelessness of the numbers is incomprehensible and can only begin to make sense once it is tapered to a human level. Our networks showed their utter lack of understanding of this fact during the first few days of the aftermath, when instead of useful information we were fed platitudes and headline-grabbing generalizations. It was insulting. The packaging and broadcasting of disaster, right down to the just-catchy-enough byline pulsing at your television’s edge, is so inappropriately calculated and manipulative that I had a hard time watching. Since the new year, with more people “on the ground,” the attention thankfully has turned more to how people are helping survivors, and of course the urgency to do even more. The stories of bravery, luck, misfortune and grief make the local global and back again, all the more so without a tyrannical dictator to blame or fanatical extremist to out-hate.

Coffee Spoons

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot (1915)

You will take on whatever task comes your way and show great depth and stamina. This is your turning point, your time to show your worth and make things happen. You will be a powerhouse — unstoppable and willing to do whatever it takes to reach your set goal.

from (April 28, 2003)

Alan Moore, "Big Numbers" (1990)

Find me a dead cloud

and a sharp piece of science

I want to see the skeleton /of weather

And let me map

all maps we have mistaken for the world

And learn by heart the time table of dice

And in our clutching self-invented dance steps see

An accidental grace

A choreography.

Things Thinging

I may be a little late to the table on this one. “All My Life for Sale” is a project devised by John Freyer in which he catalogued and sold nearly everything that he owned on eBay (the last item sold was the website domain itself to the University of Iowa Museum of Art on August 11, 2001). Hearing his story on NPR, I immediately felt a modest kinship, having recently culled through most of my own worldly possessions — selling books and electronics, donating clothes and random miscellanea, finally abandoning vinyl and audio and video tape, shredding all but a few of my handwritten writings from over the years, and generally purging all but what I might call the “bare essentials.” While not nearly as thorough a divestment as Freyer’s, the act produced in me an anxious sense of both liberation and dread. No doubt, as a kind of antidote, the next phase will be marked by accumulation. And so it goes.

For Freyer, his project lives on as a travelogue documenting his visits to his sold life, the things that are now hinged to the lives of their winning bidders. Freyer claims the project has become much less about the things themselves and more about the people he’s met through and between them.

Of related note and interest, The Dead Media Project, originally organized by science fiction novelist, Bruce Sterling, chronicles those devices and technologies once but no longer used to record, represent, transmit, transport, translate, save, project, amplify, or otherwise communicate human experience. The list seems a bit dead too these days, but still offers a great archive and reminder of just how transient and fragile our messages can be.

Words of the Year (Like No Other)

The American Dialect Society (via SG) each year votes on which words best “reflect the concerns and preoccupations of the year gone by.” 2002’s winner: Weapons of Mass Destruction (W.M.D.). Other categories of distinction include:

Most Likely to Succeed: Blog
Most Useful: Google
Most Creative: Iraqnophobia
Most Outrageous: Neuticles
Most Euphemistic: Regime change

For those who are interested, they also have lists for 1990 - 2001.

Randomness I (Organic Poetry)

Heard on NPR this AM (and on the heels of the Powers story):

Artists in Northumberland, England, and Purchase, New York each have turned to livestock to explore randomness in nature, landscape, and language by painting assorted words on sheep and cows.

While “The Quantum Sheep Project” and “The Cow Project” both require a good sense of humor, they also exhibit a fair degree of inventiveness.

Open Letter

Louise Brooks

Immortality, or What is the Meaning of Life?

Outside Temp: -58 C., Over Chicago heading towards Kansas City, 2750 km / 1707 m, Time: 3:35 PM PST, Altitude: 10,700 m / 35000 ft., Land Speed: 744 km/hr / 493 mph

Date: 11 March 1994

Dear Reader,

Our airlines have grown quite sophisticated. In between the usual “entertainment” programming, the screen before me (actually over several rows of heads) provides a well-documented, detailed assessment of my current position in the time-space continuum we lovingly call the Universe. I look on a white symbol of an aircraft floating just west of what I have come to recognize as a graphical representation of Lake Michigan. Different views shuffle by on rotation; progress is marked by distance to the next ATC region (I suspect) marked by “O” while our final destination, in this case San Francisco, is marked by a dot surrounded by a diamond figure. Next flyby, or flyover, Iowa City. Funny, I seem to recall driving this area last June while crossing the States heading east. How much further can this go? Perhaps cameras mounted on our wings giving us a live “feed” of the journey “in progress.”

(6:00 local time)

Reader, can you tell that I am fascinated by this? A technological extravagance perhaps but also enthralling and frightening in an existential sort of way.

My sometimes flight attendant just sauntered by. Actually, she is too tense and thin to saunter. Rather, she stepped, or skipped by, like a sprite. Yet, her dark eyes seem so very bored. I wonder what lies behind… and how might those eyebrows arch? Her appearance reminds me of Louise Brooks: very short black hair, clever ears, close to her head, and an angular jaw accented by sharp tendrils of hair. But her voice betrays a less than inspired spirit. Perhaps it is the circumstance. As Paul Westerberg reminds us, “She aint nothin’ but a waitress in the sky… ah ah uh…” Her utterances are flat, monotone, too nasal maybe. All of her features point to her full mouth, only to emit such disappointment.

Ah, but I digress and I am heavy with an abundance of unfair judgment. What if roles were reversed? One can only guess… (editorial note: Mrs. Doubtfire has begun and a wide body has bumped into my shoulder, struggling down the all too narrow aisle). Getting back to me-as-object-of-perception, I find it disturbing for someone to judge based simply on appearance. Yet, are we not guilty of this all too often? We learn to temper and adjust our first impressions but despite our efforts they continue to influence our thinking (Sally Field actually looks decent in this movie, although I’m beginning to feel a little disoriented without my reassuring altitude and graphical progress registers…)

So where was I? A hard question to answer. Here I sit, still yet moving (very fast I expect) wondering what you are doing there. Across the page, on the other side, you sit reading these words, and I hope coming to some understanding of them. I don’t doubt that you have come to wonder if these meanderings will in fact lead anywhere. Frankly, no guarantee can be offered at this point (which is probably just beginning to peek at the majestic profile of the Rocky Mountains). My hand tires and my bladder swells. A rest is in order. Perhaps you should take in a stray thought or two, nothing too serious. Are you thirsty? Have a drink. If you know where I am right now, call me or perhaps write a quick note.

Definitely sprite-like, and more content than I initially thought. Perhaps her stoic look is a guise. My opinion grows, still without opening one question to her, save: “What kind of enchilada?” and “Do you have mineral water?”

So, how was the respite reader? I hope you took my advice and left these words for a while. While I waited for the vacant light to go on, I spied out a small portal. The sun sets and a sea of clouds race beneath our wings. I was reminded of Wordsworth’s view atop Mount… what was the name of that mountain in his “Prelude”? As I looked on the graying skyscape I thought of you, though I do not yet know your name.

Please don’t take offense. I’ve addressed letters in the past without knowing their content and in this case I want the destination to surface along with the words and thoughts. You see, interestingly enough, you know more at this point than I do (I take it back, Sally Field is looking a little ragged… if only I could hear her voice, a $4.00 privilege). So then, who will have the endurance, the inclination to read further? While most letters carry a tone and structure suited for their intended readers, here such form is undetermined, even undermined. Of course, I do have a couple of ideas.

But let’s get to the point.

As I stretch my neck, feeling that “I’ve been sitting in/on an airplane too long” discomfort, I muse on the not so light-hearted notion of immortality or perhaps less precisely, the meaning of life. Spurred by his book, Language, Thought, and Action, I contemplate Hayakawa’s thoughts on the fundamental use of the verbal world (language) — to learn and cope (often unwittingly) through cooperation with the “life process” that surrounds and infuses us. By using experience and lessons learned by previous generations, we are able to minimize and to some extent eliminate unnecessary repetition. For example, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Instead, we are given moments adding to a lifetime to build upon these past accomplishments and, moreover, to grow as an individual amid many roles: human, woman/man, citizen, politician, son/daughter, lover, sister/brother, Jew, W.A.S.P., Christian, American, bastard, student, teacher, adult, child, working-class, middle-class, upper-class, high-ranking corporate executive or perhaps thin-wristed flight-attendant. The labels proliferate, biased of course, and hopelessly misleading and inaccurate. Whatever the distinction, classification or stereo-type, we move through it, eluding an accurate portrait. Of course, the term growth implies progress but let’s not forget ourselves, this is not always the case. Nonetheless, we are propelled into life and the immediate question arises: What do we do with this… this… meaningful process, fragile balance, gift from God, random circumstance, or (perhaps the most disconcerting possibility of all) null set? How are we to spend it? Endure it? Relish it? Pacify it? Succumb to it, our eyes wide with a look of bewilderment on our flushed faces?

How, reader? When you walk down a street on the hard, stained cement, do your bones glide in stride — a testament to “human grace” — or do they start and stop, uncomfortable with the sinews stretched and sewn in place, awkwardly mastering the instinctual yet all the more exhausting posture that you have inherited? Don’t get me wrong. As I let a draught of refreshing water pass over my thirst, I sense, I feel, I know those poetic steps. But for how long?

Decisions, choices, compromises, sacrifices, seem inevitable. Or should we defiantly throw up our arms and declare the pointlessness of it all? End of story. Of course, that is a choice in itself. The illusory seduction of immortality lies in its promise of the elimination of such concerns. Given life eternal, one turns every stone possible, and then another. Life without end — what an equally enthralling, impossible and horrific concept.

Well, I’ve managed to back myself into an awkward corner. Trials lie ahead. I sense them gathering. Yet, there is no way of knowing to what degree they will matter, to know what consequences will surely follow. Many, many words later where do we find ourselves? Any better off? No less confused surely. Yet, in some innate way, I’ll feel more prepared facing the next turn knowing that you have read these words, these translated, bumpy thoughts. As fleeting, temporary and fuzzy as these utterances have been, they remain still.