Junot Diaz, who won the Pulitzer for The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, gave an unorthodox reading in a New York bar recently.  It’s amusing.  (And they also went ahead and used the only appropriate title for a post about this subject.)  Preview:

“This was one of the stranger readings I’ve been to. I sat at the end of the bar opposite Díaz, far enough away that I couldn’t see him over the crowd, although I could hear him, barely. Barely because of the two guys sitting just a few feet away from me — a couple of aggrieved regulars, whom we’ll call Red and the Dude. Red was big and Irish and annoyed, and he groused, none too politely, as he pounded back his beer.”

From my single, brief experience with Diaz, the whole story doesn’t seem that surprising.  He gave a reading at Northwestern last year: about two dozen students, the creative writing faculty, a few more professors, a table of food, and a stack of his books crowded into the room that seems to house the English Department’s dissertations and rare books collection.  (I should be able to better describe this room, considering that I’m, erm, one of this department’s students.) 

He taught me three things: “fuck” has meanings you didn’t even know existed (and, pace Rudy, if you’re using it well enough, you don’t need a noun, a verb, or 9/11 to form your sentences), the greatest cultural contribution of Star Wars and George Lucas was to provide examples for impromptu lessons in narrative/storytelling form and structure, and that engineers while make bad writers, they’re almost uniformly good writing students.  And that creative writing faculty don’t know what they’re doing because they’ve never asked themselves what they’re supposed to be doing.  (Needless to say, the creative writing faculty took exception to this last point.)

All in all, he amused me for about an hour; my notes from it are in Evanston so I can’t pull any particular line to share.  The man has a vivacious personality, and knows how to hold a room; not a skill every writer has.  It was enough for me to go out and read Drown, which I thought a rather well-written collection of stories.  (I’d even picked up a few derogatory Spanish terms by the end of it.)  I haven’t gotten around to Wao yet, though it’s on my list (my list is rather long, however, so it may be some time).

1) Largest difference between Chicago and Louisville: necessity of cars for getting from point A to point B.  It’s such a weird thing, especially after spending almost all of the summer in Evanston/Chicago as well, to go to dinner and then get coffee with a high school friend, but to need to drive to both of them, ten minutes to one, and nearly twenty to the other.  It’s possible that that single evening’s drive is more than I spend in my (totally unnecessary for everything other than winter grocery runs) car every two weeks or so at school.

2) But spending the time in the car helps me realize two more things — gas is cheap all the sudden (I don’t expect it to last, however), and good radio stations are the one thing missing from my life when I don’t spend time in a car.

3) I love WFPK and Heine Brothers’ Coffee.  This makes me a certain type of Louisvillian at heart, no matter what I try to do about it.

4) Has alt-country and the nebulous area surrounding it gone all crunchy on us while I wasn’t paying attention?  I heard one song today lamenting our spending culture and lack of personal thrift, and then another (I’m pretty sure it was Rodney Crowell) with what sounded to be a veiled complaint about the nature of the world (something to do with gasoline, and then, at the very end, “your grandmother’s time”).

5) Taking a couple days off from blogs is relaxing.  And I like to think that I haven’t let this thing take up too much of my time yet.  I tried (briefly) to swear off my e-mail for yesterday and today, but that failed pretty quickly, which has me worried.

The Kobyashi Maru Scenario

November 25, 2008

For questions of morality, I think this is it:

“And from a purely utilitarian standpoint, I think that torture is probably justified under certain carefully prescribed circumstances. If a terrorist suspect possessed critical information about an imminent, large-scale attack, and there was no time to develop alternative sources of intelligence, would liberals really object to torturing someone to extract valuable information?”

Being one of those who, as Will quotes Koestler on, “declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units,” the, “What do you do when you know torture is the only way to save lives?” scenario consists of two options, each of which I find morally abhorrent.  Note that I’m not saying just “wrong” or “objectionable” — both ultimately demand that you treat life as something less sacred than it is.

I have no answer to this dilemma.  I suppose I would imagine my “ideal” interrogator reluctantly being urged by both numbers and group-loyalty to get the information, and then turning himself in and pleading guilty.  But the act itself is still wrong, morally and legally.  As Kirk discovers too late, obstinately declaring, “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario,” isn’t enough when actually faced with it.

Anyway, I’ve decided that finding a solution to this is comparable to and far more important than finding a way to get string theory to work.

Statistical Noise

November 24, 2008

“[I]f you have to be at a coffee house full of pretentious hipsters in order to write, it seems you haven’t got much to say.”

Quite frankly, I wish I’d written it, or thought of something comparable, because I almost want it to be a life motto, or something like a life motto, but with a sarcastic and self-depreciating category title.  Anyway, my favorite little coffee shop in Evanston got a bad review in NorthbyNorthwestern (it’s an online magazine thing) sparking a little bit of back and forth in the comments, including that zinger from A.K.S.  You apparently can’t “be postmodern and indulgent” there.  It’s too quiet.  (This could be my problem: I don’t want to write self-indulgently “meta” tractates on myself; then again, I do have a blog.)

Maybe I’m of a dying breed if I want to have somewhere I can hear myself think to do large portions of my work and writing.  For example: I turned off my music when I sat down to write this, and the sound of the washer in the next room getting ready for the rinse cycle is exceptionally distracting.  Douglas Adams claimed that music aided his writing precisely once in his life: it’s far easier to get things consistently done when it’s silent, I’ve found.  I spent an hour last spring searching for a cranny in the library where I had both an outlet and not even the sound of the A/C to distract me.

But reading the article this morning, I found myself thinking about Anthony Daniels’ essay on silence in April’s New Criterion, where he laments the loss of

“silence as a prerequisite for thought, contemplation, creativity, and perhaps even the development of character and individuality.”

When it’s quiet (even moderately so), you’re alone with yourself.  Which is when thought happens most clearly and most sharply.  Thoughts in loud places are best preserved and advanced by writing them down in as much detail as possible and returning to them later.  Or running away quickly.Writing (for me, at least) is an exceptionally private and individual act.  Sometimes I need to leave my desk for the sake of scenery, or to keep from distracting myself too easily, and when I do, I like to go where the coffee/tea is “delicious” (in the reviewer’s words), the sandwiches fresh-made, and the pastries tasty.  Which, in this twenty-first century world of coffeeshops, tends to limit my options unless I’ve managed to get restless during non-peak hours.

(Of course, this is all just because I’m personally offended.  The reviewer rattles off a list of all the customers between 3 and 6:30, but I’m not included–even though I was sitting there for most of it.  [I’m even in her little picture!  Eating coffee cake — awkwardly, apparently — and reading something.])

More notes from my fearless adventures at Upturned Earth.

Prop. 8 Aftermath: Religious LibertyI announce that I don’t really know what Rod Dreher’s talking about.  Others enlighten me in the comments.

Costs of War/Costs of Peace — War as a lose-lose scenario, courtesy of one of Andrew Sullivan’s Faces-of-The-Day.

Hypotheticals: Dems and Libs — I wonder out loud about a potential progressive/libertarian fusion-alliance thing.

Content and Education: or, Why Wonder-Bread Does Not Taste As Good As A Fresh Loaf of Whole-Grain — Talking about content and thought in education.

Oakeshott, Eliot, and Sullivan Walk Into A Bar — Finding meaning in a fragmented world.

November Herb-Blogging

November 19, 2008

So after my earlier problems with weird little fly things, I took John’s advice and sprayed a vegetable oil-water mixture on my plants, only I tried to water it down to make sure they wouldn’t die.  The thing was, I had to create a makeshift spraybottle using a spray nozzle and a plastic cup.  Ultimately, leaving the empty-but-still-oily cup by the plants was how I got most of the flies.  And we had a nice break from them.  But now they’re back, or at least that’s what I’m presuming from the one that’s been buzzing around my head for the last 10 minutes.

Also: somehow the parsley can no longer support its weight, the basil has started growing faster as sunlight per day has declind, and the mint seems poised to go all Little Shop of Horrors on us.  But they still work for cooking.  And if you’re wondering why I’ve now devoted two posts to life-updates on my plants, the best I can offer is that some people post pictures of their childrenOr their dogs.  I have plants.

So I went to see Quantum of Solace with a handful of friends Friday night, and towards the end of the previews comes this kid zooming along in a red sportscar, which he then bails from just before it flies off a cliff.  His name?  James. Tiberius. Kirk.  There was a nice bit of applause after that–not to mention an Enterprise you probably don’t want to mess with.  While I didn’t dislike Quantum of Solace (which was fun, but no Casino Royale), I left more excited than I had been letting myself be about that new Trek film.  (Yeah, I’m a nerd.)

But Ross Douthat has now gone and poured a healthy bucket of skepticism on it all.  The problem is, if recent history is any indicator, he’s right to be.  Not to mention that I also hate time travel.  (And the whole Mirror Universe sidetrack that DS9 indulged in.)

However, this proposal for a re-booted series following the original 5-year mission sounds… AWESOME.  Which means it’s a damn shame they won’t be doing it.

On Country Music

November 15, 2008

I’m going to take credit for baiting Helen into that battle over bluegrass-authenticity, even if I don’t deserve it. Just a couple of further notes, not necessarily in response to her:

One:Virtuosity/production do not mean the album is “fake.” Of all the objections I’ve encountered to Newgrass Revival, that they’re “too slick” seems to be the weakest—especially when you’re talking about authenticity.

Two: I think Krauss has a pretty voice; I have a thing for pretty voices; ergo, Helen is being a touch too hard on her. I still stand by my non-position on the whole debate over her.

Three: I’m in agreement with her about the self-consciousness of country music. One of my favorite lines (“Last night I broke the seal on a Jim Beam decanter that looked like Elvis”) has no meaning without its meta-ness (I mean, it’s a drunk torch song that doesn’t take itself seriously because it realizes exactly what it is)—and, by the final verse of the song, George Jones is doing an Elvis impression for the second half of that line. Elvis is a good example here because of the mythology about him: Drive-By Truckers’ “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” is (like much of their music) very referential to music history, but to really get it, you have to have a familiarity with Elvis’ reputation as a mama’s boy and the story that it was her death that truly began his long, self-destructive cycle. See also, Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues.” And, speaking of Welch, one of the most powerful images (for me, at least) from her lengthy, “I Dream A Highway” comes when she says:

“John, he’s kicking out the footlights
The Grand Ole Opry’s got a brand new band
Lord, let me die with a hammer in my hand
I dream a highway back to you.”

At which point we have Johnny Cash’s collapse onstage at the Opry, then how the sound of Country music left him behind, which transforms him into a kind of John Henry, which, when you go back to the first line, displays him kicking out the footlights because he’s stoned and at breaking point AND because he’s fighting back against his perceived rejection by Nashville.

And, to bring it back to Emmylou Harris: when one listens for notes of Gram Parsons in her work—it’s not always there, but shows up from time to time, often in just a vague, universalized way, I’d argue—it becomes much more powerful.

Me, On That Other Site

November 14, 2008

I think I’ve put up enough posts on Upturned Earth to start linking to them here, for sake of record-keeping and/or pointing others towards them.

“Greetings from the North Side”: Introductories.

“Obama and the War-Time Executive”: In which I worry about Barack Obama’s suspicious-looking advisors when it comes to repealing the more odious aspects of the Bush legacy.

“Bluegrass Wars!”: I get excited by all this talk of authentic-country-music-ness, and attempt to lure others into the fray.

“The Trouble with Voting”: I explain why Wendell Berry would be awesome as my senator.

These posts will continue to happen every so often for the next few weeks.

The musical front is a-flame today.  See this post at Upturned Earth for the full list of relevant links.

Anyway, I’m going to stay away from the Alison Krauss debate: gorgeous voice, and there are some wonderful songs, but I’m still more or less unopinionated on the whole.

But when Joe Carter puts scare-quotes around Noah Berlatsky’s description of Roses in the Snow as heartfelt, I can’t leave it all alone. Then he goes on to say:

“The ridiculously overrated Harris may be a critics’ darling but we rural folk use her name as a shibbolith: If you claim to be a fan of country/bluegrass/Americana and use as your example Emmylou, we know you’re a poseur.”

Just going to ignore “ridiculously overrated.”  Just going to ignore it…

I think it’s safe to say that you can’t define Emmylou as country or bluegrass, but I don’t think she’d define herself as that; she’s dabbled in just about everything but metal and rap during her career. Luxury Liner, Blue Kentucky Girl, Roses in the Snow, Cowgirl’s Prayer, Wrecking Ball, and Stumble Into Grace can’t all be put into one genre. You’d be hard pressed to fit any two into the same one. She’s more “country” than “rock” and sometimes more “bluegrass” than “country” or “folk” than “bluegrass,” but that just helps you put her in a record store, not actually listen to her.

As for “Americana”—well, I don’t think you can kick her out of that category. If there’s one thing Emmylou Harris is, it’s traditional. And “Americana” music is, if anything, precisely the type of genreless, tradition-minded music that she’s made a career of putting out (with the glaring exception of Stumble Into Grace, which you absolutely should not buy). You can make the same case, I’m sure, for either Krauss or Gillian Welch (whose name also came up, and whose Time (The Revelator) is fantastic).

And as for where I stand on examples: for country, it’s George Jones; for bluegrass, Bill Monroe; for Americana, Johnny Cash.  For stranded on a desert island for life with only one album, it’s Emmylou and Roses in the Snow.