Monthly Archives: December 2007

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Crow’s foot VI

Raven bursts from the leafless cottonwood,
shrill-barking in alarm, and lifted up
with heavy wingbeat. Writhe, the forest floor
in cold leaf-covered ecstasy, drawn up
in wordless sentences flung at the slopes
there, dotted with saguaros. Raven bursts
from the leafless cottonwood, shrill bark
tossed at the hills. The trees tremble below.
Underneath the soil’s chromatic mantle
they are joined, true-melded at the root.
Clouds cover Alnitak, Mintaka shines
in spasms through cloud edges. This is what
no one will understand, this cloud-star tongue,
though it is written plain for them. Beneath
the leaves the roots entwine. The forest floor
in writhing ecstasy of cottonwoods.
Raven bursts from them. A joining and
conjoining. In the eastern indigo
Orion leers, cloud-clad. These are the words
no one will read, though they are written plain:
a climax forest ecstasy. Raven
bursts out shrill-barking in alarm, his shriek
resounding,  joyful joining in the wood.

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2007 through the retrospectroscope

Since the dawn of time, people have posted end-of-year retrospectives on their blogs. More often than not, they do so in the last few days of December, and this year is no exception.

I’m having a bit of trouble with mine. I’m not sure exactly what I think about 2007.

I mean it’s clear that aside from the good parts, 2007 sucked.

There were some good parts. Some of the good parts were very good. You folks, for instance. You’ve been a very good good part of 2007.  And I can say that without fear of inaccuracy, because another good part of 2007 was that I carefully and meticulously ran off all of CRN’s ungood readers.

Some of the good things about 2007 didn’t seem like good things about 2007 at first. I learned a few things about myself that I didn’t want to learn. Over at Theriomorph’s — and meeting T’morph was enough of a good thing almost to justify having had a 2007 in the first place — she’s got a typically good post (just under her 2007 retrospectacle post) that starts out this way:

In general, I stay away from the blogs where general rudeness and vicious wars are modeled, tolerated, and actively encouraged. I don’t believe clever vitriol helps us. It also just smacks of privilege, this often-juvenile leisure to immerse full time in theoretic bickering, quick-tongued grudge-matches, and glorified bullying.

Learning this year that I agree with the above was one of those good things that didn’t seem that way at first. The thing about clever vitriol, I learned this year, is that most of the people who applaud you for it are applauding the vitriol rather than the clever. In the meantime the acid corrodes the container, which is to say us. Or me, anyway. Learning this lesson was tough. I had to walk away from friendships to do it. And it didn’t help matters that lots of people respond to quiet, gentle observations with which they disagree by hurling beakers full of acid. But I think learning that lesson might have saved my soul.

Also? In 2007? I learned I don’t have a soul. It was a bit startling, but man, once I got used to the idea? What a relief.

Good things that happened in 2007 also include Sylvia coming back to blogging, BlackAmazon ducking into a phone booth and coming out in her secret identity as Sydette, and ilyka coming back to blogging. I got to know Nez a little better.  I had good email, phone, blog-comment-thread or real-life conversations with friends online and otherwise, human and otherwise. I learned how to grow Venus fly traps without killing them, and pitcher plants. I put in an herb garden. I went backpacking for the first time in years. I saw Crater Lake once and Mono Lake twice. I ate some cookies with cranberries in them. I saw Indra swallowtails by the dozen in the Mojave outback, laying single jade-colored eggs on the stems of indigo bush. I saw attacked ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I had the readers of my blog show astonishing and generous support for my long-overdue book. I worked a couple days a week with my pal Tim. I got a grant proposal submitted.

That’s all good stuff.

Still.

Somewhere, I don’t remember exactly where, I came across a link to Melvin Jules Bukiet’s fantastic essay in the Autumn 2007 The American Scholar, in which Bukiet gleefully dismantles naif-optimistic writing in the Sebold-Eggers-Foer vein, saying (among other things):

Unfortunately, it’s false to all human experience to find “growth” in tragedy. In fact, the dull truth is that pain is tautological. The only thing suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering.

When I consider blog posts of a more autobiographical nature, sometimes it seems like the choice is between writing something uplifting, on the one hand, about what I’ve been learning from my life, or writing, on the other hand, the truth.

There once was someone who could reasonably be described as the love of my life — he was certainly the light of my life. In 2007 I watched him die. In 2007 I walked away defeated from what should have been a dream job. In 2007 home ceased to be a refuge. In 2007 my heart broke, regrew and broke again. In 2007 I found that I could no longer count on any of the things I had long assumed my life would hold. In 2007 I watched friends suffer grief that made mine pale.

I have learned this year from the good things, the kindnesses, the friends I found as other friendships dissolved. The emailed poetry and patience and honesty. The cookies. The lizards.

I learned nothing from the hurt except that by itself it did not kill me. And I already knew that much.

Still, there were many good things about 2007. The best of them is that it is coming to an end.

Arguments fall apart

At the urging of a friend, I finally moved Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to the top of my reading list, and then read it in a few hours this week. People had been recommending for some time that I read it, and, well, there are just too many damn good books in the world, so I didn’t get to it until now. 

If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s lovely prose, spare and driven, and with complexity beneath the surface that I’ll be exploring in subsequent readings.

And plus, every time a person reads it, a nut gets its wings. After finishing the novel, I recalled an entertaining post Michael Bérubé wrote at Crooked Timber, with one of his trademark post titles dropping coy references to hip and current musical groups so that the young people will find it relevant. The post discussed the usual bleatings by Conservative Academics that the Literary Canon is being eroded by the relentless inclusion of writers who have the temerity to be not-white, or not-male, or not-dead-since-before-the-bleaters-were-born, or some combination of the three. It’s an old argument, an evergreen, and yet no matter how many times the argument is made it never gets any more justifiable. Or for that matter more interesting.

Michael quotes someone quoting someone, a two-level quotation, in this case Rachel Donadio, in the New York Times Sunday Book Review on September 16, quoting Boston College PoliSci professor Alan Wolfe:

One can debate the changing fortunes of writers on the literary stock market, but it’s clear that today the emphasis is on the recent past— at the expense, some argue, of historical perspective. As Alan Wolfe puts it, “Everyone’s read ‘Things Fall Apart’ ”—Chinua Achebe’s novel about postcolonial Nigeria—“but few people have read the Yeats poem that the title comes from.”

Michael goes on to advance a very good argument that the Canon is not a zero-sum enterprise, not a bookshelf of fixed length onto which one can pile only so many Great Books without worthy ones falling off the edges, as is usually the case at my house. And then follows a thread of 139 comments from Crooked Timber’s very well-read commentariat, a couple of which argue with Michael that their kids won’t read any book they’re not forced to on pain of failing grades, seeming to thus imply that this is a failing of the school.

I went back to that article this afternoon and read it, all 139 comments of it, and came away shaking my head. Because Donadio’s passage right there contains the seeds of its own irrefutable rebuttal, and no one there caught it.

Consider a better-known bit of Canon fodder. Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is part of the Literary Canon, in most listings of the Canon I have seen. It is a rich retelling of the Mississippi-River-rafting adventures of the title character and his companion, Jim, during the time of the Great Depression, replete with metaphor and visceral imagery and dialect rendered with an expert ear. And because Huck Finn is part of the Canon, almost everyone reading this will either have read it or pretended to in order not to have felt left out of a conversation. Most people in the US at least have an idea of what the book is about.

Thus anyone reading this post with a tiny bit of attention to detail will likely be scratching her head at the thing I just said about the Great Depression, because the novel is set at least 70 years earlier, before the Civil War and Emancipation. The time frame is, in fact, crucial to the plot of the book, seeing as Jim is on the lam (or, spoiler alert! at least thinks he is) from what in these days of heightened sensitivity to the plight of the rich and evil are probably more correctly called the slave-owning community.

One could read a couple of interesting levels of meaning, were one inclined to make compost of Freudian slips, into Donadio’s epenthetic explanation that Achebe’s novel is set in “postcolonial Nigeria.” To the imperialists, Things probably did seem to Fall Apart when Nigeria achieved Home Rule in 1960. But the book is in fact set at the very beginning of the British colonization of Nigeria, in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Donadio made approximately the same magnitude of error as would be required to assert that Jim and Huck were running away to join the fight against Franco.

No one reasonably expects your typical American to know the dates of conquest or liberation of African countries. You’d have more luck heading to the hardware store, buying a pound of roofing nails, and then coaxing the nails to discuss Mamet. But the plot of Achebe’s book— or the second half of it, anyway — revolves around the dissolution of culture ways caused by the British Invasion.

To allege that the book covers “postcolonial Nigeria” is to say you have not read the book.

My point here is not to make light of Michael for missing that note. No, I am saving that for later, over coffee perhaps, preferably with an appreciative live audience involved. Nor am I chiding the Crooked Timber commenters for failing to pick up on Donadio’s mistake. Really, catching that kind of thing is more like proofreading than criticism, and some of the commenters in that thread could out-erudite me right into the ground on most topics.

But the editors of the New York Times Sunday Book Review would never have let that pass, had they read the book. And they did, for two weeks, if one believes the correction at the base of the article. It’s clear the correction was made as a result of hearing from the readership.

Thus I infer that no one on the Sunday Book Review’s editorial staff had read the book.

Thus I conclude that Things Fall Apart is not, in fact, being widely taught as part of an oppressive left-wing literary junta occupying what was once a free and august Canon of Great Works.

But it ought to be. Even if it knocks John Knowles off the other end of that all-too-short shelf.

Close the San Francisco Zoo

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Rest in peace, Tatiana

I have no animosity, for once, toward the police in this matter. They respond to a call of a person killed and more injured and at least one tiger on the loose, a dire threat roaming in a place where there are small children around: of course they shot Tatiana. I hope it was a clean shot. I’m not second-guessing their actions any further than that.

Still, the whole thing is an obscenity. It should never have happened.

I am not an absolutist on the subject of zoos, and I suspect I never will be on a planet where the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum exists. The Desert Museum’s explicitly ecological outlook makes it the only zoo I’ve seen where the old excuse “we exist to teach the public about the animals we keep” doesn’t ring completely hollow. There they have somewhat more naturalistic settings for their big cats, and yet the enclosures there are still about a thousandth of a percent the size of a desert cat’s normal territory. It is still imprisonment. It’s just mitigated better than at most such prisons.

But you don’t have to be an absolutist to abhor the San Francisco Zoo. Tatiana herself was the center of another incident just a year ago in which she mangled a zoo worker’s arm: cage design was found to be the problem. The outdoor enclosures are ludicrously insufficient for big cats. The zoo has a bad record in keeping large animals of any type. Check out the incomplete incident report at the end of this article, for instance. There’s at least one shameful incident missing from the list, in which visitors were able to steal a koala from the zoo without anyone noticing.

As I imagine many of the people reading this morning’s news story did, I felt rage for a moment at the injured zoo visitors, who it seems may have brought on the attack by taunting Tatiana. It may well be that the rage was uninformed and the article unfair to the victims. But if the speculation turns out to be justified, feeding the survivors to the other cats, though it might serve as a deterrent to such taunting in the future, would be beside the point.

[Update: it looks as though Carlos Sousa may have died trying to distract Tatiana from attacking his friends. If this is true, add another innocent life to the cost of the taunting.]

There will always be testosterone-driven idiots in the world. A zoo that does not operate with them in mind is not caring painstakingly enough for its animal charges.

The zoo has its devoted fans, and I assume many of its staff members truly want what’s best for the animals. How could they not? But the zoo itself is explicitly designed for gawking rather than education, for the entertainment of the visitors rather than the emotional health of its animals.

It’s time to shut it down, and to find sanctuaries where the animals can live out the rest of their lives in a less circumscribed and truncated fashion.

And in the meantime there is one less tiger in the world, killed for acting like a tiger.

Photographer Susan L. Pettitt, who would almost certainly find much to argue with in this post and should not be held responsible for anything I say here, took some beautiful photos of Tatiana. What a gorgeous, gorgeous girl she was. The world is emptier without her.

Update: More photos of Tatiana.

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Best Post of 2007?

Reasonable conservative Jon Swift is compiling a list of various bloggers’ self-designated “best post(s) of 2007,” and kindly sent an email asking me to suggest mine. And then a few days later he sent another, because I hadn’t answered the first one.

It wasn’t that I had forgotten, or didn’t care to send him a link, or anything like that.

It was that I had no idea how to define “best.”

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