Going to Work

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.

Toni Morrison
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“Consider This” – review

Chuck Palahnuik is the author of “Fight Club,” a book I have not read. After reading and re-reading “Consider This,” I may. This book is a collection of essays on writing. The points come with examples and a story or two. From the first chapter on Textures:

Think of a story as a stream of information. At best it’s an ever-changing series of rhythms. Now think of yourself, the writer, as a DJ mixing tracks.
The more music you have to sample from — the more likely you’ll keep your audience dancing.

This chapter resonated with me. He details several kinds of textures, several of which I use:

  • Tense: past, present, or future
  • Point of View: 1st person singular (I), 2nd person (you), 3rd person (he, she, it) or omnipotent/omniscient 3rd person
  • Attribution: tell who said (or did) a bit of dialogue frequently

The Three Types of Communication is not something I had ever seen called out before. Because I write poetry that is generally a page or less, there is not the length to use more than one, two at the most. The three types are:

  • Description: A man walks into a bar.
  • Instruction: Walk into a bar.
  • Exclamation (onomatopoeia): Sigh.

Using all three forms of communication creates a natural, conversational style. Description combined with occasional instruction, and punctuated with sound effects or exclamations: It’s how people talk.

Sound effects is an interesting idea. His example comes with an even more interesting comment:

… a guy was telling a story that went, “… so we’re going around this long curve—skreeeech! vroooom! — and we pass this police car…”

A listening girl leaned close to me and whispered, “Why do men always use sound effects in stories, but women never do?”

An excellent observation. Learn from it.

My thought after reading the first half was, “I’m going to have to buy this book and flip it open to a random page when stuck, or pick one point and write something that embodies it, or edit an existing piece to strengthen that aspect. Or I could copy each technique onto an index card, shuffle the deck, and flip cards until something clicks. Memorizing the whole book would work too.

The chapter on book tours made me wonder why I’d ever want to do that. Certainly not the way Palahniuk does them. I remember seeing Stephen Mitchell, a definite introvert, on book tour. Uncomfortable. Much like I would approach a book tour.

The subtitle of the book is, “Moments in my writing life after which everything was different.” Certainly I write differently now with more tools in my toolbox. Highly recommended.

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Ambiguous is not the same as Unclear

Ambiguous comes from the Latin ambi (both ways) and agere (to drive). A lot of my poetry is ambiguous in the sense that words and phrases have two different interpretations, both of which are intended. In a writer’s group, someone pointed out that a phrase had a third interpretation that I had missed. It wasn’t one I wanted, so I rewrote the section to get rid of it.

Someone who is ambidextrous has two “right” hands (both hands are dextrous), not they are unclear which is their right hand.

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Science in Real-time

All during my schooling, science was in books. Quantum mechanics and relativity theory were all worked out between my parents’ births in the 1920s and mine in 1950. There remained plenty of engineering challenges and questions of the implications of the theory, but the theory was all in college level textbooks. Science and engineering college students studied both topics. The math was pretty hairy and fairly specialized. For example, I studied the Hamiltonian operator in the course on quantum mechanics, not a math class. Science for non-majors generally stopped at Newtonian mechanics (late 19th century). This is a shame because it gives an incomplete picture of how the universe works.

I studied the Schrödinger equation, (the quantum mechanics wave equation), in college. It took 20 years of bumping into various solutions for the lightbulb to go on. The wave and particle models are solutions for the two extremes. There are all kinds of contexts in between with their own solution that is neither an infinite wave nor a particle. If you are actually going to solve problems in this realm, you need the math. To get a general idea, 3-4 different cases are probably enough.

Understanding the science in textbooks is no longer enough. COVID-19 has changed this. The science I need to make decisions in daily life is unfolding on the news and next week’s or next month’s news may be different. Our understanding of the disease, how it spreads, and its treatment, is changing. The disease itself (e.g., the original, delta, and omicron variants). Data is collected. Hypotheses (tentative understandings/explanations) are proposed and supported or disproved by data from clinical studies and more data.

mRNA vaccines against cancer were researched for many years before COVID-19. When COVID-19 emerged, many of those research teams pivoted to it. Many cancers are either caused by viruses (e.g. HPV) or associated with viruses. So many of the cancer vaccine research teams were already familiar with viruses and their genetics. When the Chinese published the SARS-CoV2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) genome, the BioNTech and Moderna teams quickly identified likely gene sequences and began testing. There was already an approved mRNA flu vaccine that was never widely used. The usual story of an overnight success, 30 years in the making.

Initially, there was a lot of confusion about how the virus spread. Many diseases spread through contact with contaminated surfaces. With COVD-19, it is possible, but not common (around 1 in 200 infections). Airborne particles (sneezes and coughs) are the major way it spreads. Masking is effective, hand sanitizer less so.

Some common colds are caused by coronaviruses. Because serious coronavirus diseases have not been a wide spread threat in the developed world (SARS and MERS were largely limited to one geographic area and people who visited the area), most health organizations based their initial advice on other viral diseases, like flu. This has also changed over time.

The early variants were primarily lower respiratory diseases (lungs). Omicron is primarily an upper respiratory disease. This is why it is more infectious (it’s easier for a virus to get into the nose and throat than deep into the lungs) and less deadly (pneumonia is lethal, a really bad sinus infection or runny nose isn’t).

Not only is the data about the virus, its transmission, and treatments changing, the tools we use are too. Antigenic cartography is a way to show the differences between how the human immune system reacts against the variants. Omicron is substantially different from all previous variants, not just genetically, but the antigens that the antibodies humans produce that were caused by previous variants’ vaccines and/or infections.

Knowledge of both the virus and the disease is continually being added to and corrected. It is too urgent to wait for the ordinary science review process that takes months to years. So preprints (articles submitted but not fully reviewed and published), Twitter, and other social media are used to get the word out.

Misinformation spreads by the same media.

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Letters at 3AM

COCKROACHES SCURRY. A tiger lies still in tall grass for hours awaiting prey. I write. The cockroach, the tiger, and me – we do how we are made.

Michael Ventura

Michael Ventura wrote the “Letters at 3AM” column from 1993 to 2014 for the Austin Chronicle (the Austin, TX alternative weekly). For me, it was a must read. Several years ago he realized time was getting short to write the novels he wanted to finish and he quit writing the column. Not long after that, I quit picking up the newspaper. Last fall he appeared again, writing “Until the End of the World”. The subtitle is “Writing is not what I live for, it’s how I live.” This speaks to me. The money I make writing isn’t enough to take us out for dinner.

If, on my deathbed, I can speak, I shall ask that a notebook and pen be placed within my reach – even if I can never again reach. It’s how I’m made.

Michael Ventura

The essay was his contribution to What Falls Away is Always: Writers Over Sixty on Writing & Death. The Letters at 3AM archive is available on-line here. Peruse and enjoy.

I’ve felt the trees grieve.

Michael Ventura

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The Art of Solitude – mini review

I picked up this book by Stephen Batchelor because I liked a prior book of his. I read it all the way through, but at times wondered why. And wondered why the publisher bothered. It is a collection of essays on three themes: the author’s and others’ experience of solitude, drug use, and Michel de Montaigne (1500s), the originator of the essay. The arrangement appears random or possibly just in the order written. Why the first theme is obvious. Why the second theme becomes clearer from a quote (from memory: sense correct, wording not), “People seek drugs so they can manage being alone.” Why Montaigne? I don’t know. He does little for me.

This book lowered my respect for both the author and the publisher.

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Well informed, Nothing done

I spend too much of my day reading up on the news. At the end of the day, I find I have no time or energy to do the things that matter: writing poetry, editing and submitting it, typing in the writing I’ve promised others, or replying to personal e-mails. I’m taking a news break/pause.

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We in the World

Laurence Musgrove published my poem, “We in the World”, on his Website, Texas Poetry Assignment. I wrote the poem after reading about the rapid spread of the omicron SARS-CoV2 variant and the world’s varying responses.

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If Necessity is the Mother …

Accident is the red-headed stepchild of invention. Several “inventions” happened when someone made a “mistake”, but checked the result before tossing it. Acknowledging the accident is sometimes problematic (see first example below).

There are several stories about how ganache, the French chocolate confection was invented. Wikipedia claims it was invented by a playwright turned confectioner, Paul Siraudin. He claimed to have named it after a popular vaudeville comedy of the day, Les Ganaches (“The Chumps”). Other stories claim it was a mistake by an apprentice cook who was called “ganache” (idiot) by his teacher. The result overshadows the original use of the word in Web searches.

The British blues guitarist, Peter Green did some repair work on his guitar and put back in one of the pickups backward. The resulting “snarky” tone was a unique part of his sound.

Closer to home, several accidents and acts of desperation have lead to better tasting coffee and espresso. Normally, brewed coffee is ground coarser than for espresso. I forgot to reset the grind coarseness when switching from making espresso to making brewed coffee (in a Clever Coffee Dripper). I like the result better and continue to make my brewed coffee that way, six months later.

During the Snowpocalyse in Texas, February 2021, we ran out of white sugar. We still had light brown sugar so I tried it in our brewed coffee and espresso drinks. We like it better and continue to use light brown sugar in both espresso and brewed coffee. This is a midway between accident and necessity.

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It Was Legal – Topical Poetry

Topical Poetry published my poem on the Kyle Rittenhouse and Ahmaud Arbery trials. They publish poems on current events that happened in the previous two weeks along with a link to a news article that provides context.

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Addiction/Cravings

A Month Without Coffee is an interesting look at addiction/cravings, specifically about coffee, but applicable to other substances. And I think about food at contemplative retreats, monasteries, etc. A key phrase is “flavor signal”. Substances with a strong flavor signal like great coffee and even more, great espresso can be very difficult to give up. The author suggests deconditioning by going from espresso to good coffee to so-so coffee, then quiting coffee (or other addictive substances).

I’m trying to lose weight and finding it very difficult. The same diet that ten years ago lost a pound every week or two is not working. Part of this may be age and medical issues. Part of this may be that I have upped my cooking over the last year. Making blah or mediocre food/coffee/espresso doesn’t seem like a good idea. May be it is.

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