Friday, July 30, 2010


In the past few weeks I've been feeling the powerful urge to record music. I've been thinking about revisiting ambient music, techno, spacemusic, and quieter styles along these lines. I am often drawn to the subtleties of ambient music, as expressed by Brian Eno, the founder of modern ambient music, who once defined it as music which can be either "actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener." Since Eno's seminal work in this genre in the 1970s, an entire musical subculture and group of styles of music have grown up. I find a great deal of creativity in this still largely underground musical subculture, as opposed to the lack of creativity in contemporary over-produced, manufactured, market-driven pop music.

I've also been listening to some older pop music which demonstrated a great deal of creativity in bygone decades, which seems largely missing now. (Perhaps because the music industry has come to care more about money than creativity.) In the 1980s, there was a lot of bad, cheesy pop, made using cheesy synthesizer patches. The 80s was the era in which both the sampler and the synthesizer first became commercially affordable to many average musicians. There was a ferment of experimentation. A lot of fairly bad music was made, following the "Gee whiz!" factor: the period of discovery early in the history of any new creative technology, in which a wave of enthusiasts get carried away by the cool new toys, but sometimes forget to make art with them. But there were also some great songs made, that used synth patches in clever, creative ways. I've been going back lately and filling in the gaps of my 80s song collection, being very picky, acquiring only what I feel was good enough to endure. Listening again to Peter Gabriel's original recorded version of "San Jacinto," followed a few years later by the Genesis minor hit song, "Tonight Tonight Tonight," you hear both songs are full of the new synthesizer sounds. But they're used brilliantly, originally, and so indelible are they to the song's style and context that you cannot imagine the songs without those sounds underpinning them.

For myself, wanting to make some new sounds, and revisiting the creativity philosophy of Because I can / Because I want to / Because I feel like it, I pulled some of my vintage analog gear out of the studio and set up to record with my laptop in the writing desk/art desk area of the house. (The studio has been feeling stale. Sometimes a change of venue is all it takes to rekindle the creative fires.) I have a fondness for old analog music gear, including my small collection of vintage analog synthesizers and processors. As pristine and powerful as softsynths (software-based synthesizer instruments) have become in recent years, there's a charm about the old clunky analog gear, and a pleasure in working completely retro. Some of those old sounds you just don't hear anymore, coming from any softsynth.

With the current unlimited software synthesis and sound-editing softwares that are available, it's possible to feel creatively paralyzed because you don't know where to begin: there are too many possibilities. One of the advantages of vintage gear is that you are forced to work within its limits, which can lead to creative accidents and solutions you might otherwise never stumble across.

So I plugged a cheesy old Casio "electronic music instrument," the Casiotone 202 keyboard, into three of my favorite analog/digital effects processors, in order: my spare BOSS SE-50 (I have two or three of these units); BOSS VF-1; and my Roland DEP-5. The DEP-5 is still one of the best analog/digital reverb/delay units ever made; its versatility and range of spatial effects has only recently been matched in the purely digital computer-music realm.

I hooked this rig up to my laptop via a Griffin iMic USB sound input/output. This is one of three USB sound devices that I use in various configurations. This one is the most portable, and usually lives in my laptop's travel case, along with some other basic audio gear, so that I can record anytime, anywhere, if the spirit moves me.

In about two hours this afternoon I laid down several stereo tracks. This evening, in about an hour, I mixed the raw materials and processed sounds into a finished track. I did this in Amadeus, a marvelous Mac-based audio recording and mastering software that I've used on the laptop for some years now. I also tweaked a few elements in Amadeus, now that the sounds had made it into the purely digital realm, before making a final mix.


On the Casiotone I laid down a bed of a chord progression, with later tracks floating over the top in a soloistic manner. The basic chord progression is one I've used versions of before, I realize in retrospect; I suppose it's somewhat typical of my thinking when I work in the ambient genre. (In this sense, I didn't stretch my own compositional envelope much. Whether that makes or breaks this as a piece of music is not for me to determine.) The basic progression begins with a I-V drone, then adds the vi chord: I-V drone plus vi. Eventually the vi expands outward to become a full IV-7 chord, making with the drone: I-V drone plus IV-7 chord. The solo notes are pulled from this sequence in various ways. This was an instance of a chord progression that seemed wholly self-evolving, wholly natural in execution. I didn't plan it out in advance, nor was it pre-conceived. I only use music theory here to describe it after-the-fact. Really, it was an improvisation that took on its own form, and expanded into a piece. (Making poems often works in a parallel way, for me.)

So, in about three hours this afternoon and evening, I made a new ambient track. This could be the start of a new group of purely ambient pieces. All the sounds for this track were generated by the Casiotone 202, and heavily processed. I plan in the near future to connect my Stick to the same basic rig, find some new processor settings, and make another ambient track purely using the Stick. I'll share that track, as well, when it's done.

I never know what I'm going to do next. Sometimes you just have to do what feels right, in the moment. In the past few weeks, I've also begun writing a series of new poems, after a long hiatus (except for the usual haiku). Creativity feeds on itself. Stimulation in one creative zone usually rhizomatously spreads to the other zones. Meanwhile, this track was loads of fun to make. More of the way soon, no doubt of it.

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Writing Is Not Misery

This afternoon, driving around town doing errands, I listened for awhile to a National Public Radio program that was a roundtable about writing. The question was asked of a group of experienced, published writers: Why do you write? The question was also asked of the listeners, and any writers in the audience were encouraged to call in with their own reasons why they write.

What resulted was the usual collection of myths and stereotypes around writing—around creativity in general—coming equally from the host's apparently ignorant questions, from the writers pontificating as program guests, and from the many callers. It ended up being an irritating and annoying mess, as usual, in which the usual stereotypes about writers were dragged out and paraded around, where nothing of any real substance was given, and no real insight ensued. (Full disclosure: I did try to call in as a writer, but for reasons unknown was unable to get through.)

Let's face it: Many writers have no clue why they write, they just do it. Why do dancers dance? Why do painters paint? Yet what makes these sorts of writer's public roundtables toxic, perhaps especially to fledgling writers, is how the guests hem and haw around the question, and don't really answer it. Perhaps writers are more prone to fits of self-justification because they are discussing what they do with meta-descriptions: using the same language tools they use in the their creative work, but one step removed. We're writers, we're supposed to be good with words, so we ought to be able to explain ourselves, right? There's a tendency to expect writers to be able to answer the question Why do you write? whereas one would accept in reply a shrug and a smile if one asked a dancer a parallel question.

The thoroughly typical, irritating stereotype about writing that kept being recycled on today's radio program was the usual set of Dysfunctional Writer archetypes. One caller proclaimed that "Great writing comes from miserable people," and the corollary, "Writing is misery." The discussion thereafter revolved around the miseries of being a writer, how you have to be miserable to write anything good, how writing itself makes you miserable, and so forth.

Well, frak that.

At no time did anyone on this radio program have the guts to state the three most important reasons why many writers really, truly, genuinely, actually write:

Because I can.

Because I want to.

Because I feel like it.

Certainly there are other reasons to write. But no other reasons are necessary.

There is no reason why you write except those. It remains a choice. Of course, for some writers, it's a compulsion: they write because they must. There are many reasons for that must, one of the most popular being: "It's as necessary as breathing, and if I don't I go a little crazy." That's a good enough reason, and needs no justification. The choice may be as simple as, I write to scratch that itch, but it's always still a choice. We're not animals determined by genetic fate; because we are conscious creatures, we always have the choice to override our instincts. I choose to write because I can, because I like doing it, and because it fulfills some need to be creative. That need to be creative, of which I have a long and friendly relationship, is the opposite of dysfunctional, and as necessary as breathing. I scratch the itch many ways, by making music, visual art, and by writing. I enjoy scratching the itch, and the itch enjoys being scratched.

Still, the archetype of the Dysfunctional Artist is such a toxic one, yet it keeps getting recycled in popular-culture programs such as this one. One wonders if people really want to subscribe to that idea. Perhaps it's just easier for non-artists to want to believe that "You must suffer for your art." That there's a price to be paid, that the Muses demand blood and sweat. It's certainly the case that even many artists are quick to dismiss as facile even good art that the artists didn't suffer enough about during the creative process.

Today's radio discussion would have been a great deal more thoughtful if the writers tapped as guests had been more seasoned, more secure in their careers and their craft, and had had the guts to not be afraid of offending anyone by saying, "No, wait, that's wrong." Instead of a lot of bland philosophizing based on stereotypes, there might have been a genuine insight.

But then, okay, writing may indeed by misery for you. Fair enough. (Although one wonders why you would keep engaging in doing an activity you know is going to make you miserable. Which leads to deeper questions about why.) But it's not misery for me. And it's not misery for every writer.

So if you want to believe that writing is misery, or that you yourself have to be miserable to be a writer, go right ahead. Your beliefs about the creative process will make themselves come true. But don't make the ridiculous error of proclaiming that, just because writing for you is misery, that writing itself is misery, and that all writers must suffer as much as you do.

Sorry, I just can't seem to find it in myself to suffer as much as some might want me to. Not for my art. Not for any reason, really.

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A Photographer's Garden 5: the White Lilies

images from my garden, July 2010

summer's perfume
around the house corners—
the white lilies

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A Photographer's Garden 4

images from my flower garden, June & July 2010

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Friday, July 23, 2010

John D. McDonald: An Appreciation

When Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and the other writers who became associated with the development of the "hardboiled" detective mystery were creating their new style of story—a style which later in film became the seeds of film noir—they were in part reacting against the constraints of the English "cozy," those tightly-plotted, carefully-constructed drawing-room mysteries epitomized by Agatha Christie. They were also inventing for the first time a distinctly American style in crime fiction writing.

Often, major changes in literary style, which this was, come about because of a renewed pursuit of realism in fiction. An old mannerist style is replaced by something more reflective of the current times, in terms of what stories are now more relevant to the times, but also in the ways in which the current times are represented. We are going through a similar major literary transition right now; the symptoms of it are all around, although some are determined to ignore them. Chandler, in his desire to pursue a more realistic fiction, made some pithy observations about social problems, not least the gulf between the have and the have-nots; and in this sense Chandler's stories meet the requirements of what novelist/critic/Medievalist John Gardner termed moral fiction.

Chandler's seven novels, at least three of which in my opinion are so good as to be unbeatably archetypal of the form, are driven by character rather than by plot. In fact, Chandler's plots are often rather weak and sketchy, compared to some other writers. His great strengths are in setting mood, poetic descriptions of people, places, and events, his dialogue which seems very natural to the ear but in fact is carefully stylized, and the progression of events in his stories which often seem close to real life in their sometimes illogical and chaotic and inexplicable drama. Chandler was a keen observer, and had a gifted ear for dialogue. In some ways Chandler's style was a rebellion against the existing constraints of the existing detective novel of that era; in other ways, his style was just the way he wrote.

What we're left with from that early era of the hardboiled detective novel is some writing that is surely amongst the best of the 20th Century. The three novels of Chandler's that I think are his best—The Long Goodbye; Farewell, My Lovely; The Big Sleep—and Hammett's best novels—including The Maltese Falcon—I would put up there with anything written in the past century in mainstream literary fiction.

Not only did Chandler et al. create a distinctly American style of crime fiction, they also created a distinctive voice in which to write. It was like Walt Whitman all over again, a surprisingly American dialect emerging from an unexpected direction. Every contemporary thriller on the best-seller lists in New York City owe a debt to these writers. Most of these latter day thrillers don't have such a distinctive style, many of them are bland by comparison, lacking poetry and sheer archetypal magnitude, but the debt is still owed to Chandler, Hammett, et al.

And one or two others.

One of these is John D. McDonald.

I came late to reading McDonald. I had been referred to his writing by other writers who I've respected. Homages and avowed influences. The enthusiast's charming invocation: Hey, if you liked that, you'll love this! Some direct tributes, one or two pastiches. Unlike Hemingway, who late in life became a self-parody, McDonald is very hard to pastiche. Finally I got around to reading McDonald, figuring if that many other writers who I like to read like to read McDonald, then there must be something there. Indeed there was.

If I were to recommend a place to start reading McDonald, honestly I'd say start anywhere. He was a prolific writer, and unlike many others who have high and low points in their careers, the quality of writing is consistently high. Or you could do what I did, finally, and start reading in the Travis McGee series. I'm fairly sure that McDonald thought of himself as a hack writer, the definition of a hack being one who writes for money rather than in the service of High Art, but like Chandler he transcends.

In some ways Chandler's Philip Marlowe and McDonald's Travis McGee are the same type of character in two different times and settings. The lone antihero, the tarnished knight always fighting against being dragged down by the evils and horrors of the lives of those they move among. Among the differences, there are many similarities. Both are soiled knights with solid personal ethics who operate within often squalid settings, often emerging at the end of a story quite scathed. One of the main differences between Marlowe and McGee, though, is that while Marlowe succeeds, perhaps unbelievably, in never really compromising his moral standards, there are a few times that McGee does cross the line, due to the necessity of action—and hates himself afterwards for doing so. McGee is even more mortal than Marlowe, in a way. Some of the finest character moments in the McGee novels are in the epilogues, when the protagonists take a long hard look at themselves, after all the main action is done.

McDonald's setting was often Florida, or the Gulf. Several of his non-series novels are also in those settings. He had a knack for showing the reader the simultaneous layers of past and present that a native sees when looking at a beloved place going through changes—often negative changes brought on by over-development, pollution, poverty, crime, and related issues. McDonald's descriptions of locale somehow manage to make us see, from within his character's viewpoint, both what they used to love about a place, what has become soiled, and what little beauty might still peek through between the billboards. McDonald was not really cynical, he was just keenly observant.

One can expect from a McDonald novel a deeply existential tone, an awareness of the ephemerality of all of life, darkening even the sunniest day, but also lightening some of the dark nights. But this existential feeling is rarely on the surface, instead it's an underpainted layer that often explains the quiet desperation of surface action. If life has no meaning, then let's keep dancing. What makes McDonald a great writer is precisely this ability to give the reader many layers of meaning simultaneously, always subtly and without fanfare. Mainstream so-called realistic literary fiction is rarely this genuinely realistic.

McDonald had a knack for depicting the deeply absurd aspects of even the most serious scenes, and there are times when the reader is tempted to laugh and cringe at the same time. Sometimes it's just gallows humor. But often what it is, is a writer giving us a moment of very complexly mixed emotions, many things going on below the surface, very much like real life. Like those moments in real life when you stand on a cusp of change, of decision, of liminal choice. One of the most remarkable aspects of McDonald's writing style is that you can be pulled inside this emotional complexity even as the fists are flying.

McDonald's prose style is lyrical and blunt at the same time. You get poetic descriptions of people, places, and events, and then a moment of dialogue which slaps you back into paying attention. The first person internal monologue inside Travis McGee's head will wander off into a reminiscence of the old Florida, then you're back in the moment with what's going on. This sort of associative, layered thinking is again very like real life. McGee sometimes makes mistakes because he gets distracted, or lets passion overrule good sense. Sometimes there are consequences. McGee's feeling is that it's okay to mess himself up this way, but powerfully not okay to mess up with his friends and clients and loved ones. If you've ever beat yourself up repeatedly for saying or doing something you horribly regret, you know exactly what this feels like.

The dialogue is almost always more intelligent and erudite than not. That's in part because of Meyer, McGee's good friend and neighbor who is often consulted on matters both practical and philosophical. Some have suggested that Meyer was McDonald's own alter ego within the McGee novels, and that seems possible. Certainly his use as a character who provides discourse affects the viewpoint and interpretation of events, often pivotally.

McDonald is more tightly plotted than Chandler, but again a lot of the action is character-driven, and the scaffolding of plot does not show. I think there is a need for careful plotting in crime fiction, perhaps more so than in other genres, but one way to sort the grain from the chaff is by whether or not the scaffolding shows. The less it shows, the better. McDonald's plots often feel quite surprising and unpredictable in their twists and turns as they unfold before you, yet seem quite inevitable after the fact. Character does drive a lot of the twists. The seedier the character, the better, perhaps.

I'm trying to describe a writing style that cannot be taken apart like this without making of it less than it is. I feel in some sense that I betray McDonald in the act of describing what I like about his prose. I don't want to give a false impression; McDonald may be an heir to Chandler, but I don't want to unfairly overdo the comparison. McDonald is very much his own man, with his own unique and contemporary voice. I worry that I might lead the prospective reader astray, because I am clumsy where McDonald is not.

So in the end I recommend that you go read a John D. McDonald novel for yourself. Start anywhere, and dive right in. You're in for a bracing, exhilarating, memorable, and potentially life-changing reading experience.

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dusk, with Fireflies

Another long night out by the window waiting for rain
that might never come. We keep missing each other, like
two lovers separated by the tracks and paths of a steam-filled
East European train station, in an avant-garde Russian film.
Why don't people kino people ever kiss except when it's
negotiation? Another line of storms flattening the counties north
but all too dry on the southern lip of the state, grass drying
dying and gasping. At last there's a dusk wind to cool the skin.
You spend most of your life struggling out of the water, coming up
on land for the first time, evolving lungs, learning to breathe all
over again. A higher, thinner moisture. Lungfish dried out along
the shore like lumps of dry coal, unable to go back and down
into the thinning tide. Stranded on the shores of the infinite,
some poet once declaimed, but left it there, no suggestions or
solutions of what to do next. My own rivers have unclogged at last.
A roar in limpid veins of whitewater foaming towards red dawn.
Everything I know is reduced to blood, sinew, this incessant cough.
Let those with daybooks and planners, who insist on carving up
the day into incremental sequences, speak to this wind, and try to
change its mind. The roar of cicadas in the pear tree fills
the twilight with sounds from a place between worlds, the droning
abyss, the summer day's heat in which people disappear into rock
needles and caves and never return. Except perhaps if you catch
the last spur of fluttering shirt in the still air. Wind from another world.
Nothing stirs there but the light and its opposites. I don't plan
to figure out why; why is an accident. Nothing ever ends.

Fireflies are rising from the tall dry grass as the sky cools. I left
part of myself beside this morning's sudden pond, and never looked
back. Something met me between the rain sluices, opening a door.
I don't have a name for it; many somethings have no known names.
Finding is naming is mastery. No, the clouds are lightening, the wind
thinner, we're going to get missed again. There will come soft rains.
Après moi, la dèluge. Where do fireflies hide, when it storms?
They're back the next quiet evening, as though remembering brings
them out again. At night the lungfish leaps in my chest, hammering
to get out, afraid to retreat in. Lungfish and lanterns, the bioluminescent
trash of the deep abyss. The deep well of the ocean a place already full
of too much white trash. In Java, in Bali, the fireflies pulse purple
instead of the green of North America. Ricefields are full of them
at dusk, rising slowly, pulses of light mirrored in still water,
cool stars also reflected in the paddies, lights above, lights below.
Where are you? Rain on me. I've lost my way in this breathless dark.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Time Is Short, Read Fast

Mostly I'm kidding. Of course there are books meant to be read slow, to be savored, maybe read a few pages at a time, set down, then returned to later, after they integrate; a lot of books of poems and sacred texts are like that. In my case, though, I've always been a fast reader, even when savoring slowly, regardless of any periodic intimations of mortality. What I don't do is waste time reading things I don't want to read. That list usually outnumbers the list of things I'd like to read. This latter list grows shorter on those days when I feel close to mortal, when what really matters gets sorted from the chaff, which is true for what you spend your time reading, too. When I'm feeling ill, why would I want to read a book that makes me feel worse? or is so badly written as to be an irritant rather than a balm? I'm not given to throwing books across the room in disgust, but temptation arises when impatience is a survival matter.

I'm not getting paid to write reviews; if I were, I would cheerfully read even something I hated in order to be able to write an honest (paid) review. So I mostly write reviews of things I wanted to read, anyway. Or which I read once before, and have re-read for pleasure, then written about in appreciation. If this makes for mostly positive reviews, so what; at least I'll say what I liked about a book, and why. I have on occasion written reviews as an antidote against prevailing taste; a rebellion if you will against the herd. I find myself often rebelling against the snobbery mainstream literary fiction mavens evince towards so-called genre fiction, even when it's demonstrably better written. Literary matters are far more tribal and herd-oriented than most literary insiders would care to admit, full of received opinions and elitist attitudes. I suppose it's no shame to be elitist when only you care about something anyway. But even the literary so-called avant-garde functions these days more as groupthink than as a group of genuinely independent, original minds. It is comical to witness how conformist many are in their cries for non-conformity.

Sometimes it takes me years to get around to reading a book. The more people tell me I should or ought to read a book, when it's still a freshly famous one, still heavily being reviewed and discussed, maybe even still on a best-seller list of some sort (there is a poetry best-seller list, but nobody cares), the less likely I am to want to read it.

I once knew some English literature graduate students who I met, of all places, when teaching martial arts classes. One woman in particular insisted how brilliant John Ashbery is as a poet, and how much she got out of reading his poetry. I had once owned and liked his early book of poems, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, but hadn't liked much since, and nothing recently. This graduate student was adamant that he was a genius. So I picked up a recent Ashbery and tried again. My reaction was the same as before: I never finished the book. It never went anywhere, excited no aspect of my self except my intellectual wit, left nothing on my tongue, and I can't remember a single phrase afterwards.

Is this what "great poetry written by a genius" has become? Well, actually, in terms of those who like academic, gnomic, hermetic, convoluted, language-based poetry that divorces referent from meaning so that the words are the only thing present, then that is indeed what it has become. The so-called "post-avant" wing of poetry is nothing but this sort of writing. Meaninglessness is in fact proposed as a positive literary value—which has nothing avant-garde about it, in truth, but is only the decadent final culmination of the fragmentation and disassocation values of early Modernism. In other words, post-Modernism isn't.

Furthermore, I read an interview with the aging poet Ashbery about a year ago wherein he openly stated that his poetry wasn't trying to do anything, to mean anything, or be anything. I found that a bracingly honest self-assessment in these decadent days when mere logorrhea is mistaken for genius at every turn. Of course, we do have the post-Eliot critical-theory roundtable to thank for some of that.

When even the poet tells me that his poetry is useless and meaningless, what could possibly induce me to spend my precious time reading it? If the writer doesn't care, why should I?

Life's too short to spend time reading things you already know you're going to dislike.

The other day someone tried to convince me to read a book that he had liked, that I had said I had no intention of reading on the grounds that it was poorly written, by agreeing with me that the book was overly didactic—but it could have been worse. Now, I don't know about you, but the argument that something could have been better but it could have been worse just doesn't make me hurry to go read the book in question. Is praising something for its mediocrity an actual, serious recommendation? I am astounded at the absurdity of this.

What would have won my approval, at least for this person's opinion, is if they had said they liked the book very much, and why, and left it at that. In other words, an honest review, followed by an opportunity for me to make up my own mind. I always appreciate an honest review. I like it when readers show enthusiasm for what they like.

The problem is when they try to convince me I should like it, too. It's not common when an argument given in support of why I should like it too is so bizarre, but it's not uncommon either. Is it that people will use any argument to try to convince you that they're right? Is it that they so want to be right that they'll even agree with you in order to try to convince you, undercutting any logic in their own position? What I find bizarre here is the pretzel logic, which is usually a symptom of uncritical fandom rather than an honest assessment of a book's literary merit. Such pretzel logic is the opposite of convincing.

When I give a book recommendation, I always do my best to couch it in terms of a suggestion rather than an order. I don't like feeling bullied, and I do my best never to pass that feeling on to others. "Should" is almost always a coercive, quietly bullying word. "You might like this" at least gives one the opportunity to decide for oneself, even if the ultimate answer is Not.

And I must disclose that I occasionally seem to offend fans when I challenge their pretzel logic. They almost never hear me when I say, I'm glad you liked the book, just tell me why, and leave it at that. Stop proselytizing, and stop being so zealous an evangelist. Stop trying to convince others that you're right and they're not. Let them figure that out for themselves.

The bottom line is: Don't try so hard to convince. Feel free to recommend, even to encourage, to enthuse, to evaluate, and to say what you loved and what you didn't. But leave the pretzel logic at home.

Life's too short to spend time reading things you already know you're going to dislike. But this is not the same as reading something you know nothing about, on speculation, on the chance that you might like it.

Usually books in this latter category are things I stumble across, rather than books people tell me I should read, or that they think I might like to read.

Sometimes a recommendation from a friend or literary acquaintance serves to point me towards very good reading indeed. It's always helpful to have a quote or two in a review, to get a taste for oneself. I've been turned onto a few wonderful writers this way. It's always a pleasure.

Most books I seek out those days when I feel most mortal are familiar books I've already read and loved, and want to re-read. It;s like comfort food, the touch of the familiar, which soothes the risible beasts of incipient mortality. Or new books by writers I invariably like, which are like fresh yet also proven commodities. Or books new to me that catch my attention, or otherwise seem intriguing. Sometimes It can take years for a book someone recommended to me when it was still "hot" to catch my interest; usually long afterwards, when I want to see for myself what all the hoopla was about. I regularly find some great books just by browsing the shelves. This might hopefully demonstrate that I am not closed to the new, in fact quite the opposite since I hope that I operate there myself as an artist, but selective. Even picky, if you wish.

But again, life's too short to subject yourself to experiences you already know you won't like. Sometimes that's because you tried it before, and had a bad experience. Hence, I have no desire to seek out roller-coasters, sashimi, certain narcotic classes of painkillers, falling off a bicycle, being bullied, or new novels by writers who have consistently disappointed me before.

Many of the most useful book recommendations come from writers I treasure now, who recommend a writer or book that they themselves treasure. More than one writer who I respect recommended John D. McDonald for years before I ever read any of his novels; now I see what they were talking about back then, and I'm convinced. If a writer whose taste I have found to have a sure compass recommends another writer I've never heard of, I'm likely to keep my eye open for what has been recommended, and am often rewarded. Occasionally I am underwhelmed, but then taste is always an issue even at the most exalted times.

Meanwhile, being the fast reader that I am, I will fill those hours when the wild hunt, the furies' hounds, bay close at hand with things more likely to keep them in submission rather than lure them closer. I will seek out those reading experiences that build me up rather than tear me down, even if the book is merely a bland disappointment. Life's too short for allowing oneself to be bored. Stasis is not growth, but a kind of stagnation, which eventually glides down the pebbly slope of entropy into devolution and death.

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Friday, July 16, 2010


After the third blood transfusion, your veins are so tired
it's no wonder they're hiding from the needles. Three tries to find
the fountain. Three more scars, three sorenesses. It's fear that
makes them hide, that shuts us down. Tired of needles everywhere.
No more. Arms and hands scarred with needle-marks, after three
months of pokes and prods, sometimes stealing vials of life-force
blood to be examined, to run through interminable tests, sometimes
filling you back up again after you've been leeched dry. If you can
bleed your life-force out of your ass for three quarters of a year
and still be cheerful about life, you're a better man than me.
More power to you. You win. Not that I've ever understood
why everything in life must be a contest, I'm more collaborative
by nature. I don't see the point. Maybe it's remnant fear, the fight
for survival that had a point once, back when we still hid in trees; but
even then we took reed torches deep into caves and drew with needle
rushes eternal paintings. Mammoth and hunter changing shape into
one another. Even then we knew there was more than fighting.
Outside the caves we left handprints on straight thing spires of rock
broken against the sky, knitting themselves to clouds near phallic pillars
and window arches, knowing somehow these were sacred magical places,
called hoodoos, called gorgons, called stone needles. It's not hard to
mythologize the phallic needle threading the fist's web between thumb
and forefinger, making a pleasure of the poke; not hard to point out
the silliness of sexual competition when procreation's not at stake.
But not now. I'm tired of needles, phallic or otherwise. I've got these
needle marks, these track marks, these scars along arms, elbows, hands.
All my tracks are medical, I don't even have the junkie's ecstasy to recall.
A similar collapse of veins, though, an exhausted cousin of overuse,
internal scarring, rolling away, all used up. They use the feet when there's
nothing left. Look at my arms. I don't want to see a single needle again
for a very long while; I'm tired of being tired of needles. At some point
you get tired of being stoic, of living up to people's expectations of strength.
Actually most folks expect you to be just that.
Your mortality scares them with their own.
Which is why some friends won't visit you in hospital, even when they offer.
It takes a needle of their own, a stiletto in the mind, before they'll face it.
Most run back towards their pet distractions, fighting all the more to
pretend it's all okay. Some rare few become quiet, and sit with you,
their presence enough. The eye of the needle takes you to the end
of your rope. Can't you see I'm dying here? Not all bruises show on
the skin. Although today yesterday's needle bite on the inside of the arm
shows the colors of a tornado-laden storm around the point of penetration,
where yesterday's pointed embrace put the blood back in.
Outside the robins and cardinals are dancing inside the shelter of
the pine needles. Carpets of resiny brown points litter the root mounds.
Sore arms, sore ass, sore head. Little bits of flooding that no one wants
to deal with. Why should they? Bleeding out slowly, from life-force to
floodwater, through the point of the eye, a sometime broken skipping record.
Quit needling yourself. Make a fist, tie off the torniquet above the rattler's bite.
Sure the inside of your elbow hurts, only a point more than myth, and only
until the next extraction or transfusion, the next set of needles. The sun's dagger
makes a temporary needle along the labyrinth, a shard of light.
Let the new blood fizz in you, the soda of provisional survival.

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Sunset Windows

Oceans & Skies: Mendocino Sunset

images from Mendocino County, CA, February 2010

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fractal Art

Fractals are described by very simple mathematical equations, but they are recursive equations, in which the output is fed back into the input and processed again and again. Fractals have been with us forever, in natural forms, but it was only with computers that it was possible to see the images made by the equations, because it requires millions or billions of calculations to generate the images out of the blank page. That just wasn't possible before computers; although some early mathematical forms we now include in the fractal set were simple enough to be done by hand for at least a few iterations, a century ago. The roots of complexity theory and chaos theory also lie in the need for many calculations. So computers have been the tool used for these mathematical discoveries—but also the tool used to make art from these discoveries.

I've been fascinated by fractals for decades, and once I had fractal generation software in hand, I could being making art. Once again, the equations are very simple recursive equations. What they produce depends on the ways the formulae are tweaked, and what other operations are also used. And what we get is a visual representation of a mathematical set that is trans-finite, actually infinite its possible permutations. So, within the bounds of a finite set we find an infinite world—yet one more paradox among many that one runs into when dealing with fractals and chaos theory.

The visual designer in me loves working with this infinite palette. I've never produced the same image twice, not even by intention. It's always wise to save off each iteration. You can always come back to them later. But you probably won't ever be able to exactly recreate them.

worlds within wheels
turning from sun-god's rise
to night's infinite aurorae

heaven's gates open
shaft of light blasting through clouds
spotlighting these crystal trees

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Benoit Mandelbrot: Fractal Roughness

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Letter to

Letter to ______

There's always the rope, which can be a belt, the strings
of a lyre, a snake holding at bay the tired shoelaces,
a solid twine that holds the car together, the nape of a noose.
No need to mention what else rope can do, flexible vertebrae
like cats, snakes, crocodiles, biting their own tails, loping, curving,
knotted, holding together or ripping apart, whatever.
Rope of guts on a messy sylvan altar; take that for
your puerile Romantic visions. Growing up means tying knots
of the kind that bind us together, lovers, slaves, servants,
majestic belayers of spirit and stone. Everything comes out
all at the same time. Bouncing between pens seems normal,
one pen presses the blank-eyed notebook, another making dots on lines
that someday maybe someone will turn into music. Ropes
of scrawled poem lines, ropes of tangled dots,
knots in a net, caught up with flotsam and pearls.
It gives us something to talk about. is talking better
than silence? Not often, almost never in fact. Even tied
to the railing, you often reach the edge of words.
Below you nothing but air, cold steam, hidden spires.
There's the rope that keeps you from falling too.
The monkey-god snake-charmer plays his nasal shawm
until the rope stands stiff and tall and he climbs up
towards clouded heaven. Consider heaven, how easier
it is to fall than to climb up. Even tied to balloons
it's easy to miss the mark. Do angels use hot air
balloons? Probably not. Their wings rope them to particular
pathways, trails of the known, well-mapped accepted routes.
Rope sandals never touching down in the catacombs.
Feeling roped back now into the usual rodeo, those classic postcards
of angelic cowboys wrestling steer, and we're back to
the pile of steaming entrails on the altar, only this time
the altars of feed-lot and rendering-plant profits.
Stink of self-pity, its offal stench. How did we end up
back here anyway? Oh yeah, climbing that thin white rope
towards god. Umbrella ties and bits of string.
Every time you feel like knotting the rope, make a lariat
not a noose, and rope yourself some of the sun god's golden cattle.
Hang on the tree, not from it. Hang out over the clouded edge,
tethered to the railing, washing god's iced-over windows.
Steel bridge cables hold you gently rocking over the blank void.
The cable of the necklace you put on every morning.
The lover's red shirt hung casually from the bathroom doorknob,
saying "Stop."

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Sunday, July 04, 2010

Small Town Fireworks

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Small Town Fourth of July

Friday, July 02, 2010

A Photographer's Garden 3: Calla Lily

Teaching Myself to Draw 6

I was supposed to meet a friend for tea and conversation at the local Starbucks (of all places) this morning, just to hang out and catch up. Well, I got stood up. But it was a lovely morning, not a cloud in the sky, not humid, not too warm: a pleasant summer day. So I took my Earl Grey tea (I don't drink coffee, which is why Starbucks is not my usual hangout) and sat outside on the patio, at a table shaded by one of those big umbrellas, while I waited.

It was not a waste, and I wasn't upset about being stood up, because it was a pleasant getaway from home for an hour or so. I sipped my tea and wrote in my journal.

And I made a couple of drawings, and worked on a couple of poems.

This ash tree was the best drawing of the morning. Made my with my Japanese brush pen, it's a depiction of the ash tree across the parking lot from where I was sitting. The long fronds of the leaves were blowing gently in the breeze, making patterns of pale green over the dark shade of the tree's branches, against the pale cloudless sky.

This is a pretty good drawing, I think. It captures the subtle movement of the breeze in the leaves. It seemed proper to sketch those leaves as pointillistic dots, following the curves and lines they made while moving in the wind. I also think the relative thicknesses and forms of the branches came out rather well. I'm learning to control the thick and thin strokes of the brush: the main trunk was drawn in one stroke, from top to bottom, across the length of the page.

So I'm still teaching myself to draw. I'm liking the results more, now, when I attempt to depict something natural and real, rather than an abstract drawing or brush-calligraphy piece out of my imagination.

Here's my usual enso warm-up drawing. I've made it a habit, when starting out a brush-drawing session, to warm up, or loosen up, by filling a sketchbook page with enso. Sometimes something emerges from that, most of the time it's just a sktech page. This session I started out with a bunch of enso, as usual, and it quickly turned into a set of raindrop circles on the still water of a pond. The still moment when the rain has only just started, the drops just beginning to fall. That smell of fresh rain in the air.

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