Sunday, April 19, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 273: Arthur Miller, Mare Island and Back (#273)

Arthur Miller, "Mare Island and Back" (1945) published for the first time in Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1987–2004, with Stage and Radio Plays of the 1930s & 40s:

I'm excited to see Arthur Miller's radio plays get some attention in the LoA, if only because they are radio plays: a large segment of our cultural heritage that we don't really pay attention to, except for one-off incidents (Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?", Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds") or properties that stretched beyond radio (The Lone Ranger).

That said, I find it odd to read a radio play. Sure, a big reason why we don't remember a lot of radio work is that it was literally ephemeral, floating in on the airwaves at a particular time and place. And, again, sure, the Library of America focuses on books and printed material.

But really, at least some of these radio experiences were recorded and aren't that hard to find. Perhaps it's time that the LoA starts thinking about the multimedia experience of some of its collections.

Because, really, without the radio show, it feels like we're only hearing half the story here.

(And yes, if you couldn't tell, I don't have much to say about this so-so radio play: a doctor deals with three wounded men during the war, two who want to give up, and a third who believes he can fly a plane despite his amputation. Of course, this being Arthur Miller, everyone has a happy ending. OK, so at least I can say that: whether pressured or natively optimistic, Miller's work here doesn't really read like his other plays.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

One way of looking at common titles

Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld magazine put together a list of the most common story titles in their submissions. It's an interesting list for that reason alone: even the most popular title ("Dust") shows up only 18 times out of 50k. The tenth most popular titles--of which there are several--show up 8 times each.

But we could also break down the list into other groups, according to structural or semiotic lines. For instance, "The " + noun titles account for 139 of the top stories. Then there's also concrete noun titles, like "Dust" and "Hero"; more abstract nouns, like "Voices" and "Memories." There are clumps of home-related titles ("Going Home", "Home") and clumps of boundary-related titles ("The Wall," "The End"). There are adjectives and nouns and verbs.

Probably these titles are so simple because only a simple title could be so frequently reused. I mean, "Dust" is a title I could probably use for some of my stories. (And as some commenters noted, some great stories have been written with that name.) You're not going to find a lot of stories titled, '"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman.'

But I'm especially interested in that "The " + noun form:

The Gift
The Box
The Hunt
The End
The Visit
The Collector
The Wall
The Prisoner
The Machine 
The Tower
The Dark
The Door
The Choice
The Fall

There's that "The" that makes a definite moment out of something wide open. This isn't the story of just any old visit--this is "The Visit." We're not just talking about "A" machine, but "The" machine--the machine that we've heard so much about or that plays such a bit role in our life.

It reminds me of something Ray Bradbury wrote about his own process, which involved lists just like this of nouns that somehow captured his attention. These weren't special, strange nouns, but everyday nouns, like "baby." (That story became "The Small Assassin.")

So what is it about nouns that seems to inspire some writers?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 272: Elizabeth Keckly, Lincoln’s Assassination (#272)

Elizabeth Keckly, "Lincoln’s Assassination" (1868) from The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Another record of Lincoln's assassination, this time from freed slave and dressmaker to Washington, Elizabeth Keckly. (The LoA note on this says that she was born a slave, married a free man of color, bought her and her child's freedom, and eventually separated from her husband--which is all sorts of interesting, but not anywhere in this story.)

The end is what you'd expect it to be: Lincoln shot and people astounded and grief-stricken. What's more interesting to me is the beginning, which records Lincoln alive: rehearsing for a speech, talking about his beloved pet goats, using the goats as lead-in for a discussion of political/social issues.

But again, all Lincoln stories end up with the tragedy of his death. And I wonder what the cult of Lincoln would be like without that martyrdom. Mind you, I'm fully in the cult myself: his intelligence, humanity, grace, humor, kindness, firmness--all of it combines to make him a fascinating figure for study and emulation. But again: would he have become a fat Elvis joke or a terrible reactionary or would he have gone on and retained his aura of greatness?

Monday, April 6, 2015

Death rattles can still be annoying when you're trying to concentrate

This weekend saw the convergence of three totally unrelated events that I will relate through the magic of words. Also known as "lying."

In the first episode of Wolf Hall, Lord Norfolk (I think) yells at Cromwell about how France belongs to England; and he's willing to go to war to get what rightfully belongs to them.

In the Passover story, we remember how we were slaves, but now we're free to get drunk--and also how we can never be truly happy when remembering the death of our enemies.

In the science fiction community, the nominee slate for the Hugo Awards was announced; this year, the nominees largely--almost wholly--belong to a slate that was put forward for political purposes by some right-wing Americans.

What ties them all together? Well, in this scenario, the organizers of the right-wing voting block clearly see their position much like Norfolk sees his in Wolf Hall: science fiction belongs to us and we'll go to war to make sure that people recognize our right.

I believe more in the Passover story. (And also in history: Norfolk never conquered France, though he made a good show of it.) That is, we have a long way to go; and the rise of equality isn't a straight-line; but I really do believe that the arc of history is towards something like justice. Maybe we weren't anything as dramatic as slaves in our lifetimes; maybe we were just exploited labor; maybe we had our loving relationships overlooked and violated by state power; maybe we were considered the objects and minor characters in other people's stories; maybe we were told we couldn't do or be something because of who we were. But however bad things were (and are), it seems like things are getting better for justice and tolerance and fairness.

So when I see something like a right-wing movement attempting to "take back" the Hugo Awards, it doesn't seem like the spear's tip of a coming wave of bigotry and idiocy. (And, sorry not sorry, folks, but the argument that runs "this art is too political, let's read stories where there are no politics" is a pre-Copernican level of idiocy: it's idiocy all the way down.) This sweep seems like the death rattle of a movement that has really lost both the war and any understanding of what they were fighting for. (Uh, the Hugo Awards? That's your big goal this year?)

But still, a death rattle can still be annoying. For instance, right now, I'm sure there are good works that would've been nominated, but that got pushed off because of this political bloc voting. I'm so looking forward to the day after the awards ceremony, when that information becomes available.

Here again, Passover comes to my rescue: at the end of the seder, we recall we are free, but that we have more work to do when we say, "Next year in Jerusalem." So:

Next year, may we have good works on the awards lists, good works that have won by merit.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 271: Edith Wharton, The Fulness of Life (#271)

Edith Wharton, "The Fulness of Life" (1893) from Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1891–1910:

I doubted Edith Wharton for a long time in this story: a woman in an unhappy marriage dies, enters a spiritual realm, and meets the man who is her soulmate. That takes up about 2/3rds of the story, the part where I seriously doubted.

The writing here felt somewhat overheated and there was a lot of nothing going on in this section: a rather boring and confusing set-up of her death, a long description of how this woman felt seeing an old church, the "finishing the other's sentence" part of the soulmate meeting. And all seemingly in service of an off-putting message about finding the person who can fit you exactly.

(Don't take me wrong: finding someone who can finish your sentences is fantastic. But I'd hate for people to wait around to find someone who can finish all your sentences. Even worse, the person who knows and loves everything you know and love cannot teach you anything.)

But then Wharton pulls the rug out from under us: yes, this young, unhappy wife has found her soulmate, but... it wouldn't really be right to leave her husband alone and it wouldn't really be home without the little annoying things her well-meaning husband did. Which turns the story from a romantic fantasy about finding the one (after death) to something much weirder. Something worth a paper or a late-night talk with friends.

Like: Is she merely used to her vexing position? Is she somehow addicted or emotionally profiting from it? Or is it just a selfless act from a generous person to help another?

Monday, March 30, 2015

SXSW Interactive: I wouldn't pay for it

As with many topics where I thought I had a lot to say, it turns out I can sum up my feelings about SXSW pretty easily:

I wouldn't pay for it.

A badge gets you in to all the panels and the parties. (Not the films or the music events.)

Except a badge doesn't really guarantee entry to any panel because there are so many people. I got shut out of at least one panel every day because the room was at capacity; I could have arrived earlier--for some of those panels, people start lining up a half-hour to hour-plus beforehand--but that would mean missing out on the previous panel I wanted to see. In other words: You can't see all the things you want to see.

But that's not so bad because (a) you can always go to your second choice panel--assuming that isn't full up too and (b) there are plenty of interesting people to meet outside of the panels. Some of the best conversations I had were with random people I happened to be standing next to on line. That's how I met a guy working on IBM's Chef Watson project and a guy working in interactive film and a guy working for Google Play out of New York.

Then again, I also met a lot of recruiters and PR people and marketing people. And don't get me wrong, I had some really nice chats with them. But it made SXSW feel less like a playground and more like a networking/work event. I wanted to hear about exciting new things coming out of DARPA (I was shut out of that panel), but instead I heard about why I should move my company to Scotland. (There were a lot of booths and parties for national and city governments.)

Ultimately, I had a fine time, met a lot of nice people, but almost all my favorite things happened outside of--as a byproduct of--SXSW events. Maybe it's different when you've got an exciting new company or some capital in search of an exciting new company, but overall, I didn't get a good feeling from the event, which was so overpopulated (and too spread out over the city).

I'm not sure there's anything to do at this point; SXSW is so big that people will keep coming to it and spending money on it (and giving panels that are thinly veiled promos for their companies), all of which will keep even more people coming. But that also means there's room here for really cool anti-SXSW festival, a smaller convention really dedicated to the future of technology.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 270: Sallie Brock, The Fall of Richmond (#270)

Sallie Brock, "The Fall of Richmond" (1867) from The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Another Civil War memorial, this time from a Southern women who witnessed the fall of Richmond. Which is one of those funny "falls" where the main damage was done by the departing Confederate army and panicked Southerners before the Union army attempted to stop the fires.

And yet Sallie Brock still describes the “Stars and Stripes” as "the ensign of our subjugation." I can't say I'm very sympathetic to Brock after that and some disparaging remarks on blacks and the Union army as "representing almost every nation on the continent of Europe."

The best part of this week's story then is LoA headnote with the unfortunately worded sentence about Brock and her husband's later life:
The couple lived and died in Brooklyn for over two decades, but both were buried in Richmond.
They died for over two decades? Like, over and over? Or is that a philosophical statement about how life is really death? Whoa, man, that's like deep.

Monday, March 23, 2015

"Like butter scraped over too much bread": Some rambly thoughts on feeling over-extended

I'm not the busiest person in the world and I don't take my privileges for granted, so maybe I should list all the ways I could be more over-extended: no kids, only one job, relatively healthy, etc.

While it's useful to remember--and have gratitude--for all these benefits, it's also fair to admit that I still feel over-extended.

Which isn't a complaint by itself, since many of the reasons I feel over-extended are voluntary and fun. When I'm rushing from work on Tuesday to make it to improv at the Hideout, I'm not thinking, "oh man, here's another thing I gotta do." Instead, I think, "oh boy, I get to improvise tonight and see my improv friends!" It's all good.

Not so fast there, buddy: did you notice that, even when I'm going to something I want to do, I'm still "rushing"?

And, of course, you can get that feeling of rushing even when you're sitting still, but feeling torn between moving towards one goal/activity and another.

That rushing, it's a bit like having lots of tabs open on your browser at once for me. Or it's a bit like trying to listen to two conversations at a party at once. It's a bit like--well, here I am again, rushing around to find more metaphors or analogies, instead of just sitting still with one.

Which has always been my problem, a mix of FOMO and curiosity: in school, I was interested in everything--which manifested itself in distraction and lack of discipline. (Writing papers, my favorite part was the footnotes where I could go off on tangents and make interesting observations, which were allowed to be tangential to the main thesis of the paper.)

In later life, well, it's still distraction and lack of discipline, only the tangents that used to be full of joy have begun to feel like burdens: I'd like to sit still and finish this story--but I've gotta go finish taking that course on Machine Learning. I'd like to finish that Machine Learning course, but I've got improv. I"ve got game night. I've got a study group to learn the language Go. I have a bunch of books from the library to read. I've got exercise. I've got food shopping. I've got SXSW. (And more on that soon.)

See what I mean about everything I'm doing being fun and voluntary. Only it doesn't always feel voluntary. And it sometimes feels like I'm getting less done by being so busy.

That, to me, is the too little butter/too much bread paradigm: things that should be fun turn out to feel attenuated, pale, thinned down in positive feeling. It's that sick feeling you get when you binge-watch a show beyond the point of fun, which is like the same feeling but from the opposite side.

I hate to state the obvious (note: untrue--I love to state the obvious), but fun things should be fun. Sometimes you gotta sit with them for a while and not be distracted; or sometimes you gotta standup and walk over to the next thing to do. But walk--don't rush.