Sunday, January 29, 2012

Why I Like What I Like

I wrote this on facebook:
I'm trying to figure out why I like the movies and books I like. Maybe I will wander over to my blog and write until something makes sense. The simplest answer is a lifetime of reading science fiction and fantasy has twisted my mind.
I can't remember when I read various books or why. But I can remember (mostly) what I've read. So I'm going to discuss my reading in relation to the history of literature, especially English literature. My reading has been pretty similar to the reading of any literate English speaker, till we come to the later 19th century, though I have a couple of quirks. As a kid, I read more East Asian literature in translation than was typical, because my mother had grown up in China, and there were a lot of translations from the Chinese in the house. And I read a lot of Old Norse literature in translation, because my father was Icelandic descent, and this was our literature. And I had a bias toward myths, fables, fairy tales, folk tales and any kind of fantastic fiction.

I read Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Pilgrim's Progress, Boswell and Johnson, Fielding, Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Twain, Melville. Partly, this was because I was an English major until my senior year. But I also read a lot on my own. My parents had a house full of good books.

But I have not mostly read the High Modernist or 20th century classics, except for the books I read for school. Once we reach the fiction of the the late 19th century, the period when popular fiction emerged as a clearly separate genre with its own audience, I shifted to reading popular fiction.

Kipling, Wells, Conan Doyle, P. G. Wodehouse, the wonderful Arsene Lupin stories, Zane Gray, Max Brand, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, a zillion other crime novels, Georgette Heyer romances, science fiction, comic books...

Though I do like 20th century literature that is fantastic: Borges, Calvino, Marquez, Allende, Angelica Gorodischer...

Genuinely popular poetry did not exist in 20th century North America, with a few exceptions, such as Robert Service and archie and mehitabel and -- this was the big exception -- the lyrics of popular songs. Lacking popular verse, I kept reading literary poetry, along with the Child collection of English and Scottish ballads and and the Sharp collection of ballads from the American southern mountains. In the late 60s I became interested in the English poets who modeled their poetry on rock lyrics.

As far as I know, literary fiction and popular fiction came into existence as categories at the same time and in opposition to one another. Earlier books -- the novels of Dickens, for example -- were read by everyone at the time they were published. They became high art later, to be read in school and by people seriously interested in literature.

As a kid, I read what I liked. Sometime in college, I began to have a political analysis. But I don't know how important it was. In the end, I always read what I liked. And what I liked tended to be popular, rather than high art.

Why? A good question.


Where did all the stars go? What used to be considered a hole in the sky is now known to astronomers as a dark molecular cloud. Here, a high concentration of dust and molecular gas absorb practically all the visible light emitted from background stars. The eerily dark surroundings help make the interiors of molecular clouds some of the coldest and most isolated places in the universe. One of the most notable of these dark absorption nebulae is a cloud toward the constellation Ophiuchus known as Barnard 68, pictured above. That no stars are visible in the center indicates that Barnard 68 is relatively nearby, with measurements placing it about 500 light-years away and half a light-year across. It is not known exactly how molecular clouds like Barnard 68 form, but it is known that these clouds are themselves likely places for new stars to form. In fact, Barnard 68 itself has been found likely to collapse and form a new star system. It is possible to look right through the cloud in infrared light.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Thor 2

Patrick points out that I have written a synopsis, not an analysis. I am a story teller, not a critic. And strangely enough, the movie is complex enough to require description in some detail.

I use the word simple a lot in my synopsis. Myths are simple, and so are most comics, though comics can be complex. I used to think that one of things I liked about science fiction, including my own work, was a certain brightness and flatness, a lack of nuance. Compare a 1960s Abstract Expressionist painting to a 17th century Dutch painting. The abstract painting is big and bright and flat. The Dutch painting is small and has depth and detail, light and shadow, nuance. Both can be good, but they touch us differently.

The other thing to remember is -- the abstract paintings were done after the Dutch realistic paintings by artists fully trained in realism, light and shadow, plasticity, nuance and detail.

Simplicity can be a choice, not a failing; and there can be complexity within simplicity.

Getting back to the movie, I think Loki is the person who drives the plot step by step, through his tricks and plots. Odin is the over-arching consciousness: the person who understands what is going on. A key line is the movie is Frigga talking to Loki: "Your father always has a purpose." So Odin is the movie's Prospero, who moves the plot through a very limited number of key interventions: Thor's exile and his own retreat into the Odinsleep.

Thor as Othello and Loki as Iago, or Odin as Propero and Loki as -- what? Caliban the monster? Am I nuts?

Ah, what the heck. It's a good action movie.


Switching to a more useful topic than MFAs in Creative Writing, I want to write about the move Thor. I just saw it for the fifth or sixth time. I really like it. Why? It's just another silly Marvel superhero movie.

I am going to talk about the entire movie. So this is a spoiler alert. Though of course you know how the movie will end already. Myths and comic books tend to come to the obvious ending.

I like the three realms that we see: Asgard, which is a science fiction city of the future combined with a Renaissance court; Jotenheim, which is cold and dark and bare, even spookier than the Old Norse realm of the frost giants as I imagined it from reading the myths; and Midgard, the realm of humans, which is an early 21st century American small town, set in the middle of the New Mexico desert.

I like the combination of superhero comic conventions and Norse myth. I think there's a touch of Shakespeare in the movie, courtesy of Kenneth Branagh, Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hiddleston, who are all Shakespearean actors. Tom Hiddleston, who is Loki, certainly lurks around like Iago.

I don't know the Marvel comic book well. So I go back to the myths and to Shakespeare: Like Othello, Thor is the story of a strong, simple man tricked by a devious and malicious man. In the myths, Thor ia a strong, simple, decent, not-too-bright god partnered with a trickster, who (like most tricksters) is sometimes good and sometimes evil. I think, in the movie, we are watching Loki descend into evil.

I like the story, which is mostly simple, though Loki -- trickster and plotter that he is -- makes everything a bit more complex.

Thor is young, strong, simple, arrogant and foolish. Like the mythic Thor, he is the monster slayer and (as it turns out) the friend of humanity. His good traits, which take a while to show up, are loyalty and decency.

Odin is the Allfather, the god who understands consequence and plans deeply.

Loki is the trickster, who by the end of the movie has betrayed everyone, even himself. He's an Iago with a motivation. He loves his father Odin and is jealous of Thor, who is -- Loki believes -- the favored son. Is this correct? That isn't certain.

The movie is a test of both Thor and Loki. Thor disobeys his father and attacks the realm of the frost giants, when his father had told him he wants peace. As punishment, he is sent to Earth in mortal form to learn what it's like to live without the hammer Mjolnir and the strength of Thor.

Soon after, Loki has a blazing row with Odin, because he has discovered he is actually a giant, adopted as an infant by the gods. In the middle of the quarrel, Odin collapses and falls into the Odinsleep, a deep sleep from which he cannot be awakened. Loki is left free to do what he'd do without his father around.

My theory is, Odin has discovered there are problems with both sons; and so he decides to test them: Thor by sending him into exile and Loki by going to sleep and leaving the stage free.

Thor must learn how to live without power, and Loki must learn to live with the power of a king.

Loki seizes the throne of Asgard and invites the king of frost giants into Asgard to kill Odin. But before the murder can be accomplished, Loki kills the giant king. As I say, he betrays everyone. He then attempts to destroy the frost giants' realm and kill an entire people -- having first lured their king into a direct attack on Odin, a more or less manufactured act of war. The giants are tall and green and unpleasant; none the less it's genocide.

Like Thor at the beginning to the movie, Loki is trying to win the approval of his father by saving Asgard from their enemy. Odin, who has known war, wants peace. It really is an anti-war movie.

On Earth Thor gets his arrogance beaten out of him. He now has to deal with people as an equal, instead of a god. He is still a formidable warrior, but he no longer has Mjolnir's power, and he learns that violence does not solve everything -- or even most things. (He could have learned the same lesson with Mjolnir, but it would have been far messier. Odin sends him to a place where he can learn the limits of power without destroying the universe.)

Loki visits him on Earth and tells him Odin is dead -- killed by Thor's disobedience and exile -- and their mother Frigga will not allow Thor back to Asgard. So now he has lost his divinity, his strength, his family and his home, and it all seems to be his fault.

Unlike Loki, he can learn from experience, and he can accept consequences. He accepts his exile on Earth in very ordinary ways -- by getting drunk with a human man and falling in love with a woman. Maybe, if he had more time, he would have mourned more. But he is young and strong and simple, and the movie is an action movie.

He has learned the limits of power, and he has learned to be human. The final lesson comes when Loki sends a robot to Earth to kill Thor. By this time Thor's buddies have shown up: the Warriors Three and the warrior maiden Sif. They still have their divine powers, but they can't stop the robot, which is destroying the small New Mexico town. So Thor learns the last lesson of being a king. If necessary, you sacrifice yourself.

He goes up to the robot and says, "This is between you and me, Loki. Leave these other people out. Kill me, if you find that's necessary."

The robot kills him.

And the hammer Mjolnir, which is conveniently nearby, returns to Thor, who comes back to life and defeats the robot. He really is a terrific killer of monsters; and the movie does a good job of reminding us that Thor is the god of storms. Earlier in the movie, he tries to get Mjolnir back from the US government in the middle of a thunderstorm, which arrives as if summoned; and he defeats the robot inside a tornado.

Then they all go back to Asgard, and Thor stops Loki from destroying the realm of the frost giants. To do this, he has to destroy Bifrost, the rainbow bridge. This isolates Asgard from the other realms. So Thor has lost Earth and the woman he now loves, and he has lost Loki, who is apparently killed in their epic fight.

He still loves Loki. One of Thor's virtues is loyalty. Like the Thor of the Old Norse myths, he is a very simple god.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


Foxessa made this comment on my MFA post. I am copying it here in full, because she is spot on:
The main reason for getting an MFA is that in the realm of academic credentials, an MFA is considered a terminal degree. You must have a terminal degree in order to be considered for an academic teaching position of any kind.

Writers and artists get tired as they get older. They don't generally make much money from their art or their writing, nor do they get health insurance, pension or other benefits. At some point teaching in some form can help one transition into the next phase of life with some financial security.

There also all kinds of grants and fellowships and so on for which you can't even apply without a Ph.D. So I know more and more artists in various disciplines who are getting themselves Ph.D.s one way and another.

I knew about the need to have an MFA in order to teach. I did not know about needing a PhD in order to apply for grants. I find this horrifying. I'm not sure why it should seem worse to make a living by teaching creative writing than by being a court poet for a Renaissance prince. It's all patronage, and no worse -- more likely, better -- than painting for the awful New York art market.

I am stuck in the old avant garde idea of the artist as poor, but independent. La Boheme. Most likely, this is silly.

I want to write fiction that is both popular and political; and I don't want to be part of a system that produces ever larger numbers of MFAs, who can only survive by teaching in creative writing programs that produce ever more MFAs.

There is one problem with being a college professor or a court poet. You have to write work your patron likes. Maybe there is more to art than the world view of the patron.

And debt remains a problem. It's hard to be a free spirit, if you have to repay large student loans.

Saturday, January 07, 2012


This is something I posted on facebook.

I've wondered about creative writing degrees for a long time. What is their purpose, except to train creative writing teachers? I mean, you get a degree in dental hygiene, and you can get a job. It used to be that a degree in journalism could help you get a job, and for all I know college training in business and technical writing are still useful. But creative writing?

I am prejudiced in this area. I have taken some classes in writing poetry, which were fine, though I'm not sure I learned much. (The best one was in Iceland, with awesome birdwatching.) Otherwise, I learned writing from reading a lot and studying English Lit. in college and being in writers' workshops, the kind that writers form to critique each other's work, not the for-pay kind with a teacher. One thing I have never learned is how to teach writing. When I've tried it, I'm not good. You might learn how to teach writing through a creative writing program, and that would be useful, if you wanted to teach creative writing.

The thing that strikes me outrageous is people are coming out of MFA programs with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. A lawyer or doctor has a good chance of paying off this kind of debt, but a creative writer? A poet? Or someone writing literary fiction, whatever that might be? -- I don't get the impression that most MFA programs are teaching people how to write romances and techno-thrillers. In any case, no matter what you write, most people in the field scrape by and a few people do well. The odds are never good.

This does not mean you give up. It means you think long and hard about starting a writing career with a lot of debt.

If your goal is to write, and you have no other career plans, a BA in something is a good idea, since a college degree is useful in getting a job, and you will need to pay the rent while building a writing career. These days you are going to pile up debt getting that. Piling up even more debt seems really unwise.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012


I wrote a lot more about class and language, and then decided I was taking Barbara Jensen's ideas in directions she had not intended.

So I will wait for her book, which comes out this July, and read it.

In the meantime, I deleted a couple of posts as being bullshit.


I had to add back part of what I cut, because the uncut version of my post on Barb appeared in The Twin Cities Daily Planet. I have to stand behind what I've said in public.

I continue to think about Barbara's essay and think of the ways different kinds of people use language. She is contrasting blue collar workers with professional intellectuals. These are two extremes, I think. Because class structure is complex, and many people have experiences with more than one class, there are all kinds of gradations in between.

I'm thinking of office workers from blue collar backgrounds, who have to deal with middle class bosses and customers, but also have to deal with their families. I was amazed by how easily my co-workers in Detroit moved between standard English and an African American dialect. I felt they were bilingual, while I knew only one language well.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Barbara Jensen, Class and Language

I read one of Barb Jensen's essays online, after posting at Crooked Timber. Barb is a psychologist who writes about the different ways working class people and professional middle class people use language. This is from here essay, talking about the "condensed" way working people talk:
I think of the restricted code as an essential, condensed kind of communication, the kind that happens between intimates. It is the kind of speech where explaining things in a general and formal way would seem strange. A differentiated kind of speech creates a certain amount of distance between people. It is not that working class people do not like to talk, it is that when they do they produce narratives, they tell stories, rather than "download" information or produce abstract encapsulations of concepts. Again, the stories they tell are filled with implicit references to people and places in their lives ("localized meanings")

Elsewhere in the essay (I can't find the passage now) she describes middle class language as bricks, making a road or wall: everything is connected, an entire argument is built. Working people use words as buoys (a wonderful image) floating in a region of information that is shared, implicit, often conveyed non-verbally. I like "buoys" because they are tethered in important places. The buoys in the Mississippi tell you where the channel is. They are giving you information about what's going on below the surface of the water.

I also like the freedom in the image of buoys. Yes, they are tethered, but they have more motion than a brick in a wall. They are related to the other buoys, outlining the channel in the Mississippi, but they are not locked to the buoys, as bricks are locked to the other bricks (or words or ideas) around them.

The condensed remarks and the story telling seem right to me.

When I worked in the hat factory, and people were getting laid off, one guy said, "Even a horseshit union is better than no union at all." There was no further discussion. He had said it all; and his remark has stayed with me for 30 years.

Whenever I get pissed at unions, I remember Leo's line. It's like a buoy, showing where the channel is.

As for storytelling, if you hear something you don't agree with, you don't argue, you either remain silent or switch the topic or say, "Well, maybe, but let me tell you what happened to my brother Irv..."

A person who doesn't pick up on nonverbal messages can get in real trouble in a warehouse or many offices. (Like me in the office in my dream a few days ago. Part of the meaning of the dream was -- I wasn't picking up on nonverbal information.)

Finally, I'm going to quote myself. This is from A Woman of the Iron People, a member of my starship describing what messages from Earth are like after 200 years:

As far as I can tell, these people (on Earth) have no interest in any kind of system: political or economic or intellectual...Some of the factual material is okay. Such and such a star has gone nova. We have discovered a new kind of life on Titan.

But the theories! I told you these people have no interest in any kind of framework. That is problem number one. Number two is -- they don't seem to distinguish between fact and fiction -- or between material that is relevant and everything else. Some of the messages sound like poetry. Others are stories with no point that I can find. Others sound like gossip or a group a proverbs...

I hadn't read Barb when I wrote this, and I wasn't thinking about the people I'd met in Detroit and Minneapolis offices and Minneapolis warehouses. But in some ways I am describing condensed or restricted speech, from the point of view of someone who doesn't understand it.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Blog Comment

I posted these on the Crooked Timber blog, in a discussion of whether the American working class was conservative.

I spent most of my working life (40+ years) as an office clerk or warehouse worker. My partner spent most of his working life as a med tech or a truckdriver. I figure we met a lot of members of the American working class. Some were conservative. Many were not. (My partner just said, “Talk to Denny and see how conservative he is.” He is one of the maintenance guys in our building. He’s a 75+ white guy, who is a Wellstone progressive. When we took off for Xmas, he said to us, “Are you going to Occupy or is this a vacation?”)

One of the other people commenting said the police and firefighters in Wisconsin were okay with Walker attacking union rights, till they realized their union rights were being attacked. I wrote:
If I am remembering correctly, Walker was going to exempt police and firefighters from the “death to unions” law. The cops and firefighters came out in Madison, none the less. Yes, there is false consciousness. But people are actually quite complex. Having just spent a week with the upper middle classes, I’d say the working class is often more complex. Working people have all kinds of ideas, which come from the mass media, pop culture, their own local culture and traditions. Minnesota Iron Rangers tend to be pro-union, pro-gun and anti-abortion, due to a history of union struggle, a hunting culture and a lot of Catholic ethnic groups. I don’t see this as consistent, but I am not a Ranger.

...The Iron Range is Democratic Farmer Labor. The local DFL politicians are pro-gun and anti-abortion, but Rangers stick with the state DFL, though the party is not pro-gun and anti-abortion. The lifestyle issues do not trump the class issues in this case. People are complex.


I woke from a dream this morning, in which I had a dreary office job in an office full of young women, and the supervisor was firing me. She was doing it very slowly, unable to come to the point. The reasons? I talked too much and made personal calls on my phone. I had never been cautioned about either, nor had I been told there was company policy about phone use.

The supervisor said other women had complained to her about my talking. A couple came into the room where the supervisor and I were and realized I was getting fired. One of them said, "Good." I told her to walk out the door and keep walking.

Patrick was in the room, trying to eavesdrop. He had a job at the same place, doing maintenance or something similar.

I finally said to the supervisor, "Okay. You want to fire me. Can you put it some way that won't hurt my chances of getting another job?"

"But you were talking too much, and using the phone, and what about that?" she asked, pointing at Patrick.

At that point, I woke, hurt by the fact that the entire office disliked me. I had clearly not fit in, and I had never understood this, or the other people.

I told Patrick the dream and he said, "It's time to let go of your feelings about working."

I said it was hard when I'd just woken from a dream about working.

Where is the Future We Were Promised?

You can see bits of future in Singapore and Shanghai, at CERN, maybe in Tokyo. But I grew up in the Midwest on the edge of the future, and while I am still in the Midwest, the future has receded. We are told we can't afford it.

I posted the NASA picture of the astronaut in space above the Earth on the Wyrdsmiths' blog, then added the above comment.

I've made my usual resolutions for the New Year: all the usual forms of self-improvement. Maybe I need to add another resolution: be absolute for a real future, a good future, work to promote and achieve it. This is very big, but why not try?

Why be content with a shoddy present, when the stars are available? Not to mention a decent society.


At about 100 meters from the cargo bay of the space shuttle Challenger, Bruce McCandless II was farther out than anyone had ever been before. Guided by a Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), astronaut McCandless, pictured above, was floating free in space. McCandless and fellow NASA astronaut Robert Stewart were the first to experience such an "untethered space walk" during Space Shuttle mission 41-B in 1984. The MMU works by shooting jets of nitrogen and has since been used to help deploy and retrieve satellites. With a mass over 140 kilograms, an MMU is heavy on Earth, but, like everything, is weightless when drifting in orbit. The MMU was replaced with the SAFER backpack propulsion unit.