Friday, April 11, 2014

The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald

In The Blue Flower, winner of the Booker Prize for 1995, Penelope Fitzgerald starts with the known fragments of a 17th Century German poet's life, and from them creates a full picture of a passionate young man, equal parts dreamer, philosopher and man of the world. Fritz von Hardenberg (eventually known as Novalis) "in a quarter hour" falls in love with a vapid twelve-year-old girl, baffling his friends and family, breaking the heart of the woman in whom he confides, who is his mind's twin.
We meet von Hardenberg's strict religious family, among them his world-renouncing father, self-effacing mother, clever and perceptive sister, wild danger-loving little brother. His fiance's family, the von Kuhns, are coarse but joyous, unconstrained, generous. Fritz's beloved Sophie, simple-minded and flighty, grows on the reader as tuberculosis erodes her health but not her urge to laugh, to dance. Her older sister, the canny and practical Frau Leutnant Mandelsloh, managing the huge von Kuhn household while her husband is away in the military, tempers instinctive kindness with unrestrained honesty.

The book's structure makes for easy entry: most chapters are only a few pages, providing vignettes which like pointillism create a complete picture. And these moments range from a discourse on the annual wash-day, to the poet's telling of the story he has begun: a young man longs for a blue flower. "It lies incessantly at my heart, and I can imagine and think about nothing else... It is as if until now I had been dreaming, or as if sleep had carried me into another world. For in the world I used to live in, who would have troubled himself about flowers?" When his listeners wonder how the story concludes, he asks them to tell him. He cannot imagine the end - indeed, our poet never completed the story - but Fitzgerald tantalizes us with her sympathetic rendering. Sophie is like the flower: captivating, fragile, unique, the light she gives off piercing directly to the heart.

The men and women we meet in this slim book offer many examples of relationships: Herr von Hardenberg and his subservient wife; the boisterous Herr von Kuhn and his relaxed and cheerful wife; young Sophie who comes to accept Fritz's attentions without ever really understanding him; Fritz's friend Karoline who understands him quite well but can say nothing when he declares that Sophie is "my heart's heart" and tells Karoline, "I see there is one thing, the most important of all, unfortunately, that you don't grasp, the nature of desire between a man and a woman." The irony of this line stings the reader: Karoline grasps far better than Fritz, the nature of desire. He imagines Sophie reciprocates his passion, though despite agreeing to marry him she never feels it. Karoline, on the other hand, so loves Fritz that she endures his oblivious rejection, remaining his friend and confidante, even going along with his pretense that she has a man waiting for her, and the four of them will be happy together.

Near the end the poet speculates: "As things are, we are enemies of the world, and foreigners to this earth. Our grasp of it is a process of estrangement. Through estrangement itself I earn my living from day to day. I say, this is animate, but that is inanimate. I am a Salt Inspector, that is rock salt. I go further than this, much further, and say this is waking, that is a dream, this belongs to the body, that to the spirit, this belongs to space and distance, that to time and duration. But space spills over into time, as the body into the soul, so that one cannot be measured without the other. I want to exert myself to find a different kind of measurement."

In telling this story from so deep inside its characters, Fitzgerald gives the poet's philosophy vitality and urgency, creating within the reader a place in which the truth of these observations will resonate long after we have closed the book.

Saturday, March 29, 2014


It's time we freed Gaia from the New Age cell where she's been imprisoned since the Seventies. 

As James Lovelock said, Gaia is Earth seen as a single physiological system, an entity that is alive at least to the extent that, like other living organisms, its chemistry and temperature are self-regulated at a state favorable to life. It is a whole system, not arbitrarily divided into biosphere, atmosphere etc.  

Lovelock was not a mystic, he was a British chemist, hired in 1963 by NASA to investigate through spectrographic analysis of the atmosphere of Mars, whether that planet would support life. To provide data points for comparison, Lovelock analyzed the atmospheres of Venus and Earth as well. Abiological Earth is what one would interpolate, on the continuum of planetary proximity to our sun. He was not looking for Gaia, but there she was, irrefutably present in his data.

Here's what he found:
Component             Mars      Abiological Earth      Earth         Venus     
CO2                         95%                  98%                .00033           98%
Nitrogen                  2.7%                 3%                    77%            3-4%
Oxygen                  trace                trace                    21%           trace
Surface temp         -53 C               290 C                  13-15 C       477 C
Barometric Pres.    .064 bars         60 bars                1 bar            90 bars            
(Source: J. E. Lovelock (1979). Gaia: A new Look at Life on Earth. Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K.)  Read more at

That's the chemical part. Lynn Margulis, a microbiologist, provided the Life part of the equation. She posited that bacteria were the first, simplest organisms to evolve. Cyanobacteria developed the ability to photosynthesize (to make food from sunlight). Through a process she called endosymbiosis, micro-organisms, instead of ingesting other micro-organisms, began to combine, forming larger more complex organisms. A cell is a community of micro-organisms. Read more at

Gaia is described as symbiosis as seen from space  - the same process occurring within organisms is also taking place on a planetary scale.

Neither Lovelock nor Margulis approached the question of consciousness, either in regard to our own species, nor to any other. But as research continues to find awareness of pain and pleasure, a sense of time, tool use, and planning among species besides our own, I can't help thinking that, as some religious and mystical traditions have long asserted, life has consciousness. And Earth is alive.

Caveat: In summarizing much larger amounts of information, I may have introduced inaccuracies. Please visit the cited sources to learn in depth about ideas I have touched on here.

Friday, March 21, 2014


Anna Quindlen's memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake comes at an opportune moment in my life. Her reflections coincide with the author turning 60, which is about to happen to me. Like Quindlen, I have numerous friends so far past this big round number that I dare not whine to them about the prospect. Her thoughts are helpful in putting time into perspective.

Along the way she makes some worthwhile observations, among them Henry James's statement, "Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind." To those polarized by mean-spirited public figures and contradictory interpretations of reality, being kind may seem foolish, wrongheaded, naive. "How can you say "be kind" to people who are f***ing up the world?!" they may explode. And yet, as we log more years in our skins, we find that nastiness and delight in the misery of others weigh us down. With the passing of Fred Phelps, Sr., the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, I was pleased to see how many of my social-media-friends declined to exult. Instead, we've hoped that the hate he devoted his life to has died with him, and his spirit is now at peace. And maybe without his vitriol, his followers will find better ways to spend their time. That's a lesson time teaches us: that resentment and ill-will take a greater toll on the person expressing them, than they ever can on the objects of that hostility.

I've come to see "Don't feed the bear" as a wise proscriptive rule for life - when someone is spewing invective, particularly from the remove of the internet, I strive to be calm, courteous, and to modulate my responses. I shake my head at how teenagers (and pre-teens) bully the weak, shy, different kids in their midst. Amplifying the tensions of adolescence just makes them harder to leave behind. Don't feed that bear.

Quindlen also observes, "...[W]e understand that being a parent is not transactional, that we do not get what we give. It is the ultimate pay-it-forward endeavor..." Indeed, life is not really transactional. While pregnant with my firstborn, I attended a no-cost meditation retreat, and on the last morning the teacher gave a talk on payment. He said some of us would "calculate our hotel bill" and pay what we thought our presence cost: meals, lodging, his time. But he cautioned us against that mindset. "This retreat has already been paid for. What you give today will enable others to participate. And for some of you, the most liberating thing will be to pay nothing, to free yourself from the conviction that you can pay your own way and break even with the world."

Timely advice. I'd thought the Hamlet character Polonius (father of Laertes and Ophelia) was wise when he said, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend." That was me: I was never going to be in debt, nor have anyone indebted to me. I was going to sail through life unencumbered. Solitary. Free. Ha!

Life is about interaction. Give, accept, don't count the change. Withholding - our money, our time, our affection - ultimately walls us off. When you want to talk to someone who agrees with you 100%, pull up a mirror. Cut everyone else some slack. Listen, reflect before responding, and don't feed the bear.

And I still live by the blessing I offered a friend at his wedding: "May you have sufficient silliness."

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Zappa on Zappa

Valentines Day, full moon, Dweezil Zappa in his tight 6-piece band performing his father's 40-year-old Roxy and Elsewhere compilation - the Future has arrived, and I think we're finally ready. Vocalist Ben Thomas not only sounded like Frank Zappa, he exuded the energy of Neal Cassady as he sang, recited, and played trumpet, trombone, and miscellaneous percussion instruments. Scheila Gonzalez played sax, flute and keys, wailing and crushing out tunes in her stiletto boots, Chris Norton noodled on his rack of keyboards, Ryan Brown drummed up a storm, and a bassist I'm going to apologize to for not catching his name kept things rocking.

Zappa Sr's tongue-in-cheek style and unexpected melodies irritated more people than they convinced, back in the day (which is not to say the man lacked his fans) - but perhaps the world has caught up and we're finally ready to hear jarring juxtapositions, shifting rhythms, and sardonic songs. That's what the crowd got Friday night, and judging from the screams and roars, a new Zappa has launched his father's music for a new generation. Frank was a composer, and Dweezil carries on: at one point he invited members of the audience on stage to dance to "Bebop Tango" where they twitched and jerked along with the music. Meanwhile DZ directed the crowd ranging in age from 60-somethings to teenagers, conducting noise levels and tones in mass participation.

Frank Zappa never doubted that the powers-that-be are out to screw us. BOHICA!, we all shouted: Bend Over, Here It Comes Again! He's completely at home in our modern world, where our "protectors" are spying on us (hey, they were in the 70's too, but they lacked modern-day tools that really vacuum up everything we're doing). I'm sure he would have written some great songs about drones, waterboarding, and our compulsion to police the world - well, the part that has resources we want, anyway. The rest of them can murder each other as they like.

For me the evening was a confluence of two life-streams: in the 70's the Ogden Theater was a down-at-the-mouth repertory movie house, no flick running more than 2 nights. For a dollar you could see Tallulah Bankhead, Errol Flynn, Alfred Hitchcock's early movies, and many more. And I discovered the Mothers of Invention at about that time, spending a spellbound half-hour listening to "Billy the Mountain," laughing to "Broken Hearts are for A**holes" and "Goin to Montana Soon, Goin to be a Dental Floss Tycoon."

So my advice, if you think Indie music is a little too restrained and diffident, if you want to hear intention behind the noise, if you appreciate rock bands but what they play on Classic Rock stations is a bore, is: get yourself some Zappa! Listen to Roxy by Proxy and rediscover music!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

It's been a while since I read a Vonnegut novel, so it was fun to fall back into his wide-open storytelling style: dramatic tension? Nah. Good guys and bad guys? To him, we are all both. Mysteries solved by the characters? He deflates those by telling us right away what they do not know: how it turns out, who did it, etc.

Vonnegut does offer up a real mystery, about the Galapagos Islands ecosystem, without pretending he knows the answer:  How did the creatures documented by Charles Darwin on the islands get there? A thousand miles of deep water separate the islands from mainland South America. No land bridge, no evidence that they were ever part of the continent. They are volcanic in origin, which suggests they formed by erupting from the sea floor. Some evolutionary biologists have posited that animals floated over there on rafts of vegetation, and Vonnegut states this theory in a way that would make you squirm if that were your explanation. He just leaves you to ponder. This calls to mind lines from Cat's Cradle: "Fish got to swim, bird got to fly, man got to sit and wonder why, why, why."

What he does tell us is who's going to die, when and where. Which they do. Having laid bare the fates of his characters from the very start, he then shares their defining moments of life so we can appreciate them anyway. He weaves the twin species drivers of sex and death into an often funny story, whether he's describing the mating dance of the blue-footed boobies or the way one character met her husband-to-be.

In brief, a cruise ship runs aground on one of the Galapagos Islands. Some of the dozen people on board repopulate the world with vastly-modified descendants while everyone on the mainland is rendered sterile by a virus invading their reproductive systems.

As in previous stories, Vonnegut shows little respect for intelligence, finding it cause for misery far oftener than benefit. He calls us big brained creatures, making clear that this is no compliment:
"If I may insert a personal note at this point: When I was alive, I often received advice from my own big brain which, in terms of my own survival, or the survival of the human race, for that matter, can be charitably described as questionable. Example:  It had me join the United States Marines and go fight in Vietnam.
Thanks a lot, big brain."

His characters have no more consistency in their behavior or judgment than any batch of humans you could assemble: the retired school teacher heroine marries a con-man who stalks wealthy widows then disappears with their money. She believes the lies he tells, including his made-up name. But he dies before he can do her any harm, thus bringing her happiness. And the ship's captain, an arrogant racist, is the father of the only surviving branch of the human family, though he doesn't even know it. The fertile females, members of a primitive tribe rescued from starvation in the rainforest, are able to communicate among themselves but with no one else among the shipwrecked. I'm sure Vonnegut took special joy in launching this stone-age tribe past modern technology and culture (all doomed) to give birth to our future.

In Happy Birthday Wanda June, Vonnegut took us to Heaven where everyone dead is hanging out, including Hitler - and they're all happy and getting along wonderfully. In this writer's cosmos we are all good and evil, no matter our sins. He faults our brains, which are as attracted to creating havoc as to helping one another, and our fecundity, which keeps us from acknowledging the precariousness of life.  Your big brain may very well enjoy this book. Just keep in mind that the world as you know it could change drastically in an instant. And when you figure out how those land tortoises got to the Galapagos, let me know!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis vs. Computer Chess

Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers' latest release, is an evocation of the early 60's New York folk scene, told through the misadventures of also-ran folksinger Llewyn Davis. The wintry colors and period clothes and cars take us back, but we are clearly in the hands of storytellers who like to mess with their characters, and thereby with us. Davis can't catch a break - the single he performs on as a session man goes on to be a hit, but in his desperation for cash he's already signed away his claim to royalties. He tries to hawk his records, tries to get money out of his producer, cadges a series of couches and floors to sleep on, takes a pointless trip to Chicago, and basically burns every bridge, some while he's in mid-crossing. The cast of Coen oddballs exists primarily to enable the hell he's made of his life, but for all the focus on his sad puppy eyes, we can't see inside.

Andrew Bujalski's 2013 release Computer Chess is set in the mid-seventies. Teams of computer geeks crowd a southern California hotel for their annual man vs. machine chess competition, bringing the large clunky hardware that was state-of-the art a mere 30 years ago, and huddling to strategize. Meanwhile an encounter group is lodging in the same hotel (with overlapping use of the conference room) for activities which include chants, group embrace, sensory awakenings... Anyone who remembers the seventies will not believe this movie was made in 2013 - no anachronistic spin spoils the effect. Shot in black and white with hand-held home movie cameras, the film offers not the Coens' ironic glib hi-def rendering of Greenwich Village, but an affectless depiction of nerds and encounter groupies.

Computer Chess explores a theme central to modern life without our present-day suspicion and defensiveness toward technology. Rather, we are offered the we're-all-in-this-together early collaboration of programmers with computers. These nerds are frustrated equally by the complexity of the problem they have set themselves, and the machines' inadequacy. Though they generally agree that in another ten years a computer will beat a Grandmaster, they despair at their programs' apparent stupidity.

Some of the chess hangers-on are after something else, deeply paranoid about whose money is behind the more successful teams. Mike Papageorge, a scam artist, insults the organizer, pretends he had a room reservation, then after being rebuffed by the hotel clerk, tries to cadge floor-space in every competitor's room and ends up sleeping under a conference room table. There he wakes to the ministrations of the encounter group, who guide him through a rebirthing.

The central character of Computer Chess is Peter, a young nerd whose combination of intellect and innocence attracts those around him to make confessions and advances, neither of which he wants. Can computers wonder about the soul? Are the vast number of possible chess moves really just a speck in comparison to human potential? These are not questions he would have chosen to ponder, but it's certain he will leave the competition a changed young man.

Llewyn Davis is a depressive combination of serial sponger Papageorge and young Peter, in whom others look to discover the parts of themselves they doubt and dislike. But unlike Davis, who gives a blank look to the Chicago record producer who asks bluntly, "Who's inside Llewyn Davis?" the characters in Computer Chess know who they are and what they want, and strive on, undeterred by failure. Davis, lost in the haze of his own compounded misery, cannot see out to get out.  

The Coen brothers' people are Characters, but Bujalski's characters are People.
In my grading system,
Computer Chess rates an A+ 
Inside Llewyn Davis gets a B-

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Guest Post - Infinite Jest, Take Two

Guest blogger (and son) Ernesto, who gave me this book to read, offers his take:
W/r/t my second complete reading of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest:

While I am baffled that I spent several months reading/lugging this humongous book everywhere (again!), it was all worthwhile. Like with any re-examination of something, I found that a lot was gained, more details observed, and the deeply interwoven world of the book came into full focus.

The main questions I am left with are:
Why does JOI [James O. Incandenza, as a ghost] choose to visit Gately of all people?
Why does Orin [JOI's eldest son] decide to unleash the Entertainment?
The ambiguities of the novel's end are numerous, but like any text so massive, many of the answers can be found within. The master copy of the entertainment which JOI had interred inside his cranium is missing when Hal [Incandenza], Joelle [Prettiest Girl of All Time aka PGOAT], Gately, and John Wayne unearth his remains. The imprisoned Orin cuts a deal with the AFR, giving them the location of the master. The shadow government of the ONAN is prepared to handle the onslaught of the paralyzing entertainment with PSAs and mass electrical outages.

The first time I finished, I was flabbergasted by the lack of closure even with these hints. However, a gimmick I discovered on the internet offered a more comfortable resolution: Flip to the start and read through the first section, ending on page 17. Doing so places the reader at the latest chronological point in the story, the last year of subsidized time. It also refreshes for us all of the poignant details of Hal's opening inner monologue. And since one has already sunken weeks of time into the book, clearly showing some obsession, it doesn't seem like too much of a stretch to flip to the beginning and start over (ala the Entertainment or a Substance).

The use of style in the book is likewise infectious, giving the reader a repertoire of slang from across the Bostonian class spectrum. The colloquial writing makes the book even more digestible, at least once you get over the hump of the first 200 pages. The main narrative is colored with disturbing stories told both by individuals from and on their way into AA and nearly indecipherable nuggets of AAVE or phonetic Irish-English. These sections are so numerous and seemingly unconnected, but not a single character or tangent stands alone.

The twisted version of America (ONAN) from a dimension where things are just a shade worse is compelling as well. Not only is it futuristic in its predictions -- 1996 was a long time ago, technologically speaking -- but the technology itself moves people to be radically anti-social (see the section on videophones and the mask industry that comes about as a result). This deeply sad America is caught up in spontaneously disseminated entertainment (cough Netflix, cough cough Amazon Prime) and advertising agencies literally own time itself. The amalgamated TelePuter combines our society's favorite technological distractions into one (as we see rapidly occurring with video-streaming technology). The late Ray Bradbury often pointed out that science fiction's visions of our future serve best as a warning. Infinite Jest should be considered in the same way, something to admonish us and give us pause as we creep deeper into self-absorption and indulgence.

One of  the recurring points in DFW's writing, whether it's short stories, speeches, or in IJ is an urging for human beings to be compassionate; to strive to understand and love someone other than oneself. JOI's stated purpose for having made the entertainment was to get an emotional response out of Hal, to show beyond a doubt that he loved his son despite his own emotional distance and crippling alcoholism. In curbing his own addiction, Hal becomes (by all appearances) a rabid and horrifying animal, which adds to the dark irony of JOI's attempt to elicit emotions from his son.
It's easy to see that Wallace writes what he knows: depression (for which he received electro-shock therapy), addiction/recovery programs, and competitive junior tennis. Reading this 1079 page story for the second time I can't help but applaud David Foster Wallace for creating a world so simultaneously colorful and flawed and an opus so magnum.