The Life of the Mind

I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about brains.  Not perhaps in the Dr. Frankenstein sense of needing to collect some for a pet project, but still with a nod to my own mortality. In some sense that’s due to getting older and especially watching my parents get older and wondering what the future holds when my mind remains intact but my body can no longer respond to the mind’s commands.  But perhaps I’ll be fortunate and the mind will go first.

Regardless, I’ve been thinking regularly about the thinks I think because that patterning and association that goes on inside the head of myself and others is interesting to me.  I think differently than many people – that is, I process information differently.  My trains of thought are usually more grasshoppers than trains in the usual sense.  There may be an anticipatable trajectory or arc to them, but they change direction frequently and unexpectedly to those outsiders attempting to catch up or catch on.  Or perhaps they are more like teleporting insects of another type, that flit from here to there with no expected or regular results.  I occasionally wander around inside my own head, become bewildered and lost, and have to retrace my steps to figure out how I got here.  So far, I’ve always managed to find my way back out.

But are the thinks I think unique?  Probably not.  I would like to imagine that the stories I tell myself are ‘irrepeatable’ and will never again be known in this world. Language makes that unlikely however in that the words we use – in conversation, in written correspondence, in any spanning of that gap between two distinct minds – are all based on some sort of commonly accepted understanding of meaning.  And despite the fact that a gap of some sort remains – I am not you, and you will never be me – there is no certainty that as individuals, we are all so different from one another that I would not be at home if I could in some way merge myself into your thoughts.

This scares me.  I may be a unique snowflake, but the idea that the other snowflakes in this blizzard of humanity are equally unique and equally worthy in some way disrupts my independent pride.  The idea that I may have my own mind-self looking out from behind different eyes but thinking around the same sorts of well worn concepts and diligently pursuing the same formulaic ‘answers’ is depressing.  True, I may have new perspective or insight into a number of the great questions.  But is perspective enough?  Or do I want to be special enough to find my own new question?

Or perhaps there is nothing deeper for me to dig into unless I want to make a really big hole.  Perhaps I would be better off focusing on the path I’m taking, embracing the journey to find the same answers to the same questions once again.  Perhaps it is enough to identify, trace, preserve and make beautiful those still-shot images I recognized as some higher plane of Life through the words I use to bridge that emptiness between minds.  Perhaps writing as a craft is enough to give voice to the rambles undertaken by my ‘self’ due to unique neuron firing, genetic makeup, physical and environmental impacts, magnetic energies or lesser forces.

Or perhaps I demand something iconic that is my own.  Something more.

The Secret Hike.

Being without a car in Boston is not being without a car in Portland.  Sure, both cities are very bike-friendly.  Both have decent transportation systems.  Both could be better to pedestrians, but have at least some respect for the walker.  But the most glaring difference I’ve found is in the places outside the city I can get to easily without a car.  In Boston, I can get to the beach or to hiking trails.  Ok sure, even if I take the commuter rail the beach isn’t that great, but it’s ocean.  The mountains are not that far away, but for me it means renting a car or being reliant on others.  I hate reliance.

So when the vehicle I was relying on for my Labor Day hike fell through, I was in a bit of a quandry.  I could bus myself up to Forest Park and explore around a little, and that probably would’ve been surprisingly good.  But it seems so far to bus in order to walk.  I decided to ramble more locally.  This is what I found:

1) Random exercise signs that had been uprooted from who knows where and lovingly placed face down between tall pines.

2) Slugs.  Lots of slugs.  Brown, red, ridged, and green with blackish-brown spots.  Also a few pickle-colored ones.

3) Birches cut off at the roots and regrowing in thick bundles with multiple trunks.

4) An old aluminum clothesline, still shiny.

5) A trash heap or possibly a former resting place for squatters.

6) Access trails that ramble off into nothingness.

7) Trails made by goats.

8) Trails made by goats with really long legs and wearing boots.  Or humans.

9) A spider spinning a dandelion seed out of its web as the wind tugged and threatened the entire spanning structure.

10) The baking tops of ridges and the tinglingly cool depths of damp ravines.

More’s going up on the other blog as I add words to the pics to keep my writing hand in habit (and now that link is fixed…).


Sometimes I have vivid dreams.  Sometimes I have dreams I can remember very clearly.  Sometimes I have entire cinematic episodes in my head, conscious or unconscious.  Perhaps this means I should be a movie director, or a fortune teller, or street bum who talks to herself.

Regardless, the most recent epic is about me, from the future, coming back in time to relive my life and rethink my decisions.  You see, in the future, I was working for a big old corporation that was up to no good.  There were some natives who had some stuff they wanted (the same old story) and they were determined to get it.  I was sent in as some kind of consultant to try and get said natives out of our way.  Of course, it didn’t work, and of course the mean old corporation was going to push them out by whatever means necessary.

In this case, ‘whatever means necessary’ involved a highly sophisticated device that looked just like a vacuum cleaner.  There was some sort of related vacuum-type air suck portion to the machine, that would selectively blow natives away from the goods we wanted without damaging the items themselves.  However, the visual similarity with more mundane devices meant that you could stick a vacuum brush on one of the nozzles and completely blend in with office cleaners anonymous.

That’s how I stole the thing the first time.  I decided it wasn’t right to blow away the natives (literally) and I was going to do something about it.  With my newfound vigilantism however, I made the world bad for everybody.  I used the device on corporate headquarters, and it ended up taking out the whole office building, as well as a sizable amount of the city around it.  Economies collapsed – anarchy broke out, and gray and dusty and dreary holocaustic times set in.  But I had a chance to go back and make things right, to try to find a better solution.

Of course, my return involved romance.  That’s what second chances are all about, right?  So I tried to talk to someone in the corporation’s hierarchy about how what we were doing to the natives was wrong, and this time I actually had some time to get someone to listen.  The younger son of the corporation owner in fact listened, fell for me and I for him, and I told him the whole story.  I told him what had happened last time, how horrible it was for everyone, how driven I’d felt at the time to do something, anything to get someone to listen.  I told him about all the damage I indirectly caused, and about my second chance.  And he talked to his dad, and got me the opportunity to talk to the old man myself.

The old man, of course, was exactly what you’d expect – crotchety, generally dissatisfied with both me and the world, and hard of hearing when it suited him.  I told him my whole story, everything that I’d confided to my love interest in secret.  I told him what could happen and what I didn’t want to happen again.  I tried not to make threats.  I appealed to his superior wisdom.  I told him reminded him how the whole thing was like Dances with Wolves, but that he had the chance to change the ending.  In my dream this made sense, but it’s really been too long for my conscious mind to understand how the dream is like the movie.

But in the end, the old man was unmoved.  For whatever reason, stockholders or inflexibility or the color of shoes I wore, he wasn’t buying it.  “That’s not even similar to Dances with Wolves” he said.  So he basically told me to get out and leave him alone, in the most barking way he could to his son’s love interest without endangering their relationship.  And then I was left with what to do, yet again.

I couldn’t stand still.  I found that even though I knew the results of my actions, I had to do something.  And there was really only one thing to do – I stole the bomb that was a vacuum lookalike, again.

You’d think the second time around they would’ve learned their lesson.  And they did have some security – an armored car for the device itself, and plenty of armed guards walking the car to corporate headquarters.  But still, a woman in a  cleaning uniform is eternally overlooked.  Once again I just stuck a brush on and walked off with the thing.

Of course my love interest found me.  And when he found me, so did the old man.  But then I not only had a bomb in the office, but two really important hostages.  I wanted to cave, I just wanted to get out of the situation without hurting anyone, native or not, but I didn’t know how.  I talked to my love interest, and told him the whole thing, even though I was holding the man by force.  He motioned to his dad as I spoke, talking about how I didn’t want to go through with it.

“You don’t have to,” the old man said.  “I went to see them, the natives, and you’re right.  It IS just like Dances with Wolves.  I understand now.  You don’t have to hurt anyone – we’ll find a better way to come to an agreement with them without using the device.”

And that was that.  No holocaust, no bombs or forcible removal, no need for a weapon at all.  The vacuum stays a vacuum, albeit an unusually powerful one.

Is this funny? I don’t think it’s funny.

A long time ago, in a land far away, a girl composed a poem about worms.  i can’t really remember much of it, except that it was hilarious.  SO, for my WriMo, I set out to create a similar funny (if not hilarious) poem, to be added into my tale.  Of course, feeling not so inspired for most of the time I was writing, I left the poem for the end, for the last of my creative juices.  The result is less than pleasing:

Digging, delving, ever pinker

Rolling juicy earthworms pant.

Singing gaily of their prowess

Who can tell what makes them dance?

Dancing come they, willy-nilly.

Dancing come they, to a feasting.

Festive garbage, festive eating.

How to move, then, with no feet?

Jiggle-juggle go the earthworms

Jiggle juggle dancing sweetly

Keeping time with rings of gristle

Keeping jiggles as they creep.

In there tunnels none will mark them.

Eating refuse, breathing deep.

So, now I need to make this funny.  Or, if you already think it’s funny (you weirdo, you).  I need to make it funn-ier.  Please help.

3,000 words to go.

I feel like my brain is fried and I will never write again – probably because I’ve been trying to chug out the last words for this foolish thing before vacation.  Yep, that means I spewed out 7,000 words today.  Ugh.

Some of the work though, is still good.  A sample:

Nightmares.  I see a large fat child that eats its still-live victims, that grows red and horned when backs are turned.  A glossy and reflective grand piano chases me, stomping and jangling keys discordantly.  I hear a mewling cry and it is the sound of my heart clawing its way up out of my chest and out through my throat and mouth, a glistening gory red.  Two stoned kids poke at a derelict hat moves oddly in the breeze and a squirrel leaps from it, gnawing away at their faces.  I am pushed over the edge of a cliff and fall and fall and fall, just waiting for the last and final crack.
After some time, I wake.  I am in a white, anesthetized room.  My sister is there, reading to me – Le Trois Mousquetaires.  I breathe the deep oxygenating breaths of freedom.
“What happened?”  I ask her who has stopped reading.  “Tell me everything.”
She adjusted herself more comfortably in the seat, closing her book.  “There isn’t much to tell.  I got here.  You were insensible and losing blood, and your doctor decided to go forward with some procedure she’d wanted you to consider.  I OKed it after the fact, after i got here.  You could have died.  peter did not know what to do.”  She looked at me severely, knowing my heart.  “He’s been very kind.  He’s a good man.”
“You told him, didn’t you?”
“Yes.  He didn’t know there had ever been a danger for you, didn’t know there were heavy risks for you to carry an infant to term.”  She considers me for a moment.  “You didn’t do it on purpose, did you?”
“Do what?”
“Get pregnant.”
“No.  No, I would’ve liked a child, but you know how committed I’ve been to adoption for some time.”
“Do you think it would’ve helped you, if that had been a possibility for you earlier?”
How could I have ever given up a piece of my own soul willingly?  I shook my head.  “No, I think it was the right choice at the time.  I dealt with what happened…better.”  I looked away from myself, trying to find some point in the room that was not bright and stark.  “With Peter, things have always been a little unusual.  I’ve taken risks I normally wouldn’t.  I think I love him.  No – I know I’m in love with him, still.  All the risks seemed like good ones, euphoric and wonderful ones.”
“Until now.”
“Yes.  Until now.”

It is typical for me (perhaps for most of us) to trust in my heart more than my reason.  I like to think that this is due to kindness, rather than self-interest, though there are some that would tell you no person acts other than for their own benefit.  I would argue that those who say so are the ones who are most unhappy, probably because the believe this.  Still, I am aware that I often act in illogical, unreasonable ways and a I do feel some guilt for this.  I often wonder if my best intentions hurt more than they help.  We move among each other, so many ripples in a pond, and even the greatest or deepest of us has little perspective on how wee affect the world around us.  I wonder if the things I do can have any meaning, or if they are gestures helplessly lost in the oncoming waves.
Peter has stayed with me in the hospital when my sister needs a break.  I have no idea how he’s explained away his odd absences from work, and I’m not sure I would want to hear the explanations.  He does not try to talk to me, but sits in silence reading.  Occasionally he’ll share something from what he reads.
“Hey Sam, listen to this.”  He was reading Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath.  “‘Purring is not so different from praying. To a tree, a cat’s purr is one of the purest of all prayers, for in it lies a whole mixture of gratitude and longing, the twin ingredients of every prayer.'”
Otherwise he lets me sit in silence, for which I am grateful.  No explanations or discussions, no thoughts or reflections or moral directives, no inner jihads – I am on pause.  I take each day like a crystal fruit, beautiful, unchanging, sharp, and completely inedible.
Eventually my mind must return to the land of the living, must begin to revolve around what has happened to me, and what I still have to do.  But for now, I am content to wait.  I will need time, and for now at least the bodily scars can be allowed to heal.

A bit more…

THE NOVEL continues to come together.  Not only do I have structure, but I think I even (GASP!) have developed a plot.  Of course, at almost 30,000 words, you hope your characters aren’t still bumbling around aimlessly.

A further sampling:

“I’d like to try to get to Zimbabwe.  While Jim is still there.  I want to see all those great stone cairns, all the houses.”
Linda looks up from her reading.  “Have you heard from him recently?  Jim?”
He’d run off earlier that year this the Peace Corps, spreading AIDS prevention materials and attempting to assist in the building of some new clinics.  “I heard form him a few weeks ago.  The guy was hard enough to keep in contact with when could corner him with email, cell phones, and stalking.”
“But he’s obviously making a huge effort if he’s emailing at all.”  She sniffed.  “I haven’t heard a peep from him.”
“Yes, but did you want to?”  I laughed at her.
“Face it, Jim gained appeal as soon as he was no longer available.  I, at least, made the effort while he was here.’
“Well, he is one of your best friends.  It’s expected.”
“Just like it’s expected he’ll make the extra effort to email me now.”  I could feel my face freezing into seriousness.  “I miss him.”
“Yes, but you haven’t lost him.  That’s the imperative thing.”

Living in a foreign country at all times carries with it a sense of unreality.  If there were a period in my life clearly marked as ‘without consequences’, those years away from my own family and typical friends and lasting environment would’ve been that time.  Perhaps Conrad is right, that without some civilizing influence, we are all lost to a savage, more primal world, some dark heart that is kept locked within each of us by the proper marked decorum of our familiar world.  But if he is right, and that decorum rests in the delusions and protection of women and the home, then we are already lost, and civilization has failed – this same darkness rests also now in me, dreaming only uncomfortably and shifting in its sleep.
I had lived for two years on the line between propriety and daring.  I occasionally taught in tank tops, exposing bare shoulders to the young and impressionable minds of my male students.  I danced with abandon every time the opportunity presented itself – with other teachers, with students, with university administrators.  I walked in sandaled feet through the winter chill (in Slovenia, every chill was winter chill) and risked my death in the isolated and drafty countryside homes of several of my charges.  I went out, at night, alone.  While my skin could not identify me as a foreigner, my habits did.  As soon as I opened my mouth, my voice did.  My accent and lack of coherent sentences did most of all.  I began to find I was more afraid of the world than I had thought – the risks I knew and calculated and had lived with in another place seemed distant.  In their place, was the odd fear of a system I would never quite understand, that I could never quite use to my complete advantage.  It was a fear I would bring back with me – i began to see my old patterns of behavior as an outsider.  Comfort was scarce, confusion varied.  I was stronger than change, but barely so – my self-image shifted and reformed, melted and rewove, became a fire-flicker of change.  To this day, I am not yet resolved into a single coherent whole.

Nobel Anger.

I do sometimes get depressed about how my own particular culture is ignorant of and insular from the rest of the world.  Of course, Just looking at the relative sizes of countries, it’s just as easy for most Europeans to visit another country as it is for us to visit another state.  And it is hard to outgrow a prejudice without personal experience to counteract it.  If you never meet a for-real French person, how do you know they aren’t all snobby and rude?   However, much as I can understand US pride and US ignorance and US inward-focused narrowmindeness, that doesn’t mean i like it.  I deal with it, I try to educate and eliminate it where possible, and I hope for future understanding.

For myself, I would not consider this cultural background a disadvantage.  I know it’s there, but I would not say it handicaps me in my own life.  perhaps it’s arrogance, but I’d like to think I’ve grown beyond the prejudices of my upbringing.  in particular as a writer, I’d like to think I have a little perspective and a little objectivity and a little observational prowess.  I’d like to think my upbringing does not keep me from being a good writer.

According to Horace Engdahl, permenant secretary of Nobel’s Swedish Academy, that’s virtually impossible for most of us US citizens.  Evidently (and unbeknownst to me) US writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” dragging down the quality of their work.  “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.  That ignorance is restraining.”

I can accept that the majority of Nobel Prizewinners are European.  I can accept that some, even many, people feel that Europe is still the center of the literary world.  They have an intense and continuous history of it – of course they have extensive skills to draw on.  But I don’t think our own history puts us at that much of a handicap.  I don’t think we are too insular, or too ignorant.  I think we do participate, fairly actively, in the literary world (note, world, not immediate insular community).  Yes, we do have some shoddy writers, but so do all countries, even those in Europe.  That doesn’t mean we can’t, or aren’t, producing grade-A literature.

Let’s take the three books I’m reading right now (yes it’s three, yes I read a lot).  The first one, the fluffy one, is a sci-fi novel by C. J. Cherryh.  This one happens to be about humans interacting with two different groups of aliens, one of which has a very Oriental flavor.  It’s not the most profound literature, but the topic seems…oddly appropriate. Someone from the US can imagine the way humans might interact with not only a different culture but a different biology in a realistic way?  I would not call that insular or ignorant.  Another book I’m reading is The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya.  She’s Russian.  It’s translated.  I guess it’s one of those random outliers of a book that made it into the US literary scene, even though it’s translated and deals with post-apocalyptic Russia.  Because obviously, we don’t translate enough.  The third book I’m currently reading (dare I say involved with?) is The Breif Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.  It’s awesome.  If you haven’t read it, go out and buy it, because you will want to read it again.  Diaz is a Dominican-American writer who often writes about the immigrant experience.  He’s very insular – he only writes about the DR or the US.  I wouldn’t call him ignorant though, especially considering the footnotes, which are almost as playful as those in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, but are also far more informative and factually based.

I’m sure Mr. Engdahl is getting his fill of criticism over this interview, and I wouldn’t mind the US losing the Nobel Prize for Literature to someone worthy.  But if no US writer makes it on to the short list this year, after this particular interview?  That smacks of insularity and ignorance.

Stress sonnet – Let’s go Petrarchan.

I like to think I work to better man.

I like to think my impact could be great,

Yet somehow fetid boredom is my state

Despite my challenge to myself to stand.

I am not free of work or work’s demand.

I am not free to choose my daily fate.

My greater purpose I have yet to sate,

So still I wonder if my future’s bland.

But why still wonder if my soul is true?

And why anticipate what’s yet to be?

My heart, if strong, will know how passions grew

and how, in turn, regrets must number few.

One step I want to take but cannot see

so sideways steps may be all I can do.

Is it fair? Is it write?

Recently in my mini side-trek into the world of freelance stuff, I stumbled across the site called oboulo. Evidently it was originally a French site that is now taking off in the English languages. Basically, they pay you $10-$15 for exclusive online  rights to your papers, articles, and what have you.  In addition, they will pay you for referring others and give you a small increase in the rate for each paper if you are referred.  They make their money by charging about $4 for the download of each paper.

Now, while this could seem appealing at first glance, there are obvious associated worries.  First is the potential ‘scam’ nature of the website itself, and second is the question of where revenue comes from.  Both of these have been answered to my satisfaction.  The website looks well-organized and thoughtful, and there has been pretty widespread support and positive feedback online.  Mind you, everyone who’s commented about the resource could be lying, but they were pretty excited to get paid for old papers they had just laying around.  In addition, from the site itself, there was some revenue explanation.  Most of these papers are not normally published works – they are research papers, but most are at the collegiate or lower level.  Therefore, they are unlikely to be resources that would be found at a library.  They would still potentially have some value for new ideas or simply for their bibliographies in a certain area.  In addition, each submitted work is not necessarily accepted – it is screened for its worth, and then paid for or rejected.  This at least gives the idea that the website is invested in what they are publishing, committed to a quality online product that others couldn’t necessarily supply.

The final worry is the most nebulous one – the threat of plagiarism.  Though oboulo considers itself to be a ‘knowledge database’, I would guess that at least some and possibly many of the people who pay to download articles will be using them as their own work.  While its true that a large amount of the material available is of a nature that it would be difficult to plagiarize – historical timelines, reviews of theater performances, and sample resumes and cover letters to name a few examples – the referral process remains questionable.  Oboulo claims it uses referrals to expand their resources – by paying more both for those who make referrals and for those who get referred, they are expanding the web of potential writers they can reach.  It seems to me that if you trusted the value of your product, you would be able to rely on word of mouth without additional incentives.  However, ING online does the same kind of program, and it is one of the reasons I chose them over other online savings account companies.

Still, is it morally reprehensible to submit your own hard work to a place where you are sure, or at least strongly suspect, it will be used by others for plagiarism?  When I talked to Mike about my inner conflicts in this area, he basically gave me the idea of putting a dollar value on my morals.  Basically, is it worth it for the $15?  Probably not.  But also, I’m not legally obligated.  Honest people could be downloading what I’ve written for the value of reading it.  Or, even if not through the honest appeal of my writing, for the research contained within it.  Knowledge-wise, the facts I’ve extracted from other sources could be valuable for others in their own research or paper writing.  And in particular for some of the material I’ve written over my lifetime, the value is probably no more than $15.

At the end of the day, though I have yet to submit my work on oboulo, I have signed up.  I am officially a ‘sponsor’.  I am going to try at least one paper submission tonight.  So, if you’d like to try it out, my ambassador number is e376ee.  Enter it and you get a little extra money on everything you would want to turn in.  However, if you feel like your work is worth more than $15 per paper, or that if most of the stuff you are currently working on you need to keep the rights to for publication later, don’t worry about it.  You can also always did out the book report you did in fifth grade and see if that gets accepted.

The point’s the thing (or, the end justifies the means)

 I am reading a fiction book I found in the bargain bin at my local bookstore – to protect the innocent, I will not mention its title here.  And there’s nothing wrong with being in the bargain bin – the classics are often there.  I recently picked up a hardcover Eco book there for a dollar.  It was The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, so arguably not one of his best works, but still.  And if I can get that for a dollar, anything I’m getting for $3.65 has some kind of worth.

It is more of an enjoyable quick read, but I still appreciate that type of fiction.  The thing that I don’t value about it is the way it portrays writers.  You see, it’s a frame story in places.  One of the characters is a writer who we see writing within the tale.  We even get to read some of her story.  The point of contention with me is that the writer of the frame story (who happens to be male) has the female writer in his work write the perfect story a chapter at a time with no revision.  None.

Now, the female writer inside the story is writing a children’s book, it’s true.  And while this does mean less  actual words to edit, and perhaps a different standard of writing, to believe this woman just writes and then sets aside her ‘perfect manuscript’ threatens my credulity.  Does the male author expect us to believe anyone can just slop it down for children’s fiction?  Did he, in writing the frame as well as the innards, do that children’s book section in one easy sitting?  I certainly hope not.

Perhaps I’m being to harsh.  Perhaps this particular work of fiction is driven to one specific message, and the details of realism occasionally slip aside.   Perhaps the superb rough-draft of this female writer is a firmer implication of the idea that she was ‘meant’ to write that story.  Perhaps it’s simply a case of the main point, the main end of the tale, overshadowing the smaller details.  However, at the end of the day, I would not consider Cesare Borgia in my friendship circle.  And I doubly don’t trust Machiavelli.  For that reason, I am hesitant to embrace their particular credo, even if skewed to fit a very different time and a very different set of circumstances.

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