Thursday, December 23, 2010

Leaven Life: Baking Tip

Don't try to bake while taking care of a baby. Baking and baby do not mix. I've attempted to bake bread several times since becoming a parent, and I usually end up with dough in trash and flour on baby.

These are two loaves of Stollen bread I baked recently while Lucy was in the care of someone else:

And what do you get when you make Christmas goodies while watching a 4 month old? Chocolate on baby:

Friday, December 17, 2010

William James

I’m always comforted when I read a biography of someone famous, someone I respect, and find out that they were pretty much like most mortals: indecisive, insecure, and often depressed.

I just read a biography of William James by Robert Richardson. When James was younger, he couldn’t make up his mind on what he wanted to do. He was a talented painter and had a considerable amount of artistic training during his teens. He also wanted to be a scientist and accompanied one of the most famous biologists of the day, Louis Agassiz, on an expedition to South America to study the fish of the Amazon.

But he ended up settling for an MD from Harvard University. Now that sounds impressive to us, but in the mid 19th century it wasn’t impressive. At all. James was always insecure about the fact that he just had an MD, because at that time it wasn’t a graduate degree. You didn’t have to have a bachelor’s degree to get in. And Harvard wasn’t an elite school. The medical school in Cambridge was particularly easy to get into, and it was incredibly easy to obtain the degree. You just had to attend the lectures, pay 30 dollars, and there was no test until the very end. One oral comprehensive exam. It covered nine subjects, and if you passed five of them you got the degree (i.e., you could get a 55% and pass). The whole thing could be done in one year.

Once James got this medical degree, he decided he didn’t want to practice medicine. He would teach physiology instead. And over time he drifted into other fields, eventually making huge contributions to psychology and philosophy. But he often got depressed and questioned the value of his contributions to science and philosophy. He was never really content with the path that he was on. His direction was always changing.

He and his brother Henry were a bit competitive, as you can imagine. Especially considering the fact that Henry was younger than William, but Henry enjoyed literary success many years before William made a name for himself as the author of The Principles of Psychology. It’s often said that William wrote philosophy like a novelist and Henry wrote novels like a philosopher. William also thought of himself as a competent literary critic, and was quick to give Henry advise on how to write fiction. Henry, on the other hand, tended to accept William’s psychology and philosophy immediately and wholeheartedly. But he felt very comfortable criticising William’s family life. William was married for 32 years and had 5 children. Henry never married.

Another famous phrase about the James family is that they were “a nation unto themselves.” Their father, Henry James Sr., dragged his family all over Europe when the James boys were young. He thought they could only get a good education in Europe, but didn’t keep them in one spot for very long. They were constantly being uprooted and planted in the next supposedly excellent continental school. As a result, the James children felt rootless and resented their father’s wandering ways.

William ended up spending most of his career at Harvard, but was given to sudden departures across the Atlantic, usually without his family. His fame grew over the years, and he gave many lectures in Europe to large crowds. Henry ended up spending most of his life in England, and was something of a celebrity there. They both were among the first modern American cultural ambassadors to Europe (modern in the sense that they embodied the ideas and principles of what came to be called modernism). But in many ways, they hardly felt American themselves. William was vehemently and publicly critical of American imperialism and arrogance at the turn of the century. Henry eventually became a British citizen in 1915. To a large extent, they rejected nationalism and maintained the cosmopolitanism of their youth.

The James family was close, but that closeness was through the written word. Their correspondence was constant, playful, and honest. What the James gang lost in proximity they made up for in letters that revealed the true condition of their hearts and minds. Their doubts and fears and regrets. We read about their ideals and their views on how to live life, and observe them coming up short, doing their best to cope with disappointment and loss.

In the past, I’ve had the ambition to read the essays and novels of William and Henry James, based on their philosophical and literary reputation. But now I have a feeling that reading their correspondence would be just as rewarding. Maybe even more so.
Henry and William, left to right.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


...And I'm back.

Since the last post, I have been forced to finally grow up and keep another human being alive 24 hours a day. My wife and I were going to start with a pet, like a hamster, and maybe move up to a dog or a tiger. But we decided to skip all that and went straight for the infant homo sapiens sapiens.

This is a digital 2D representation of a real 3D beeby named Lucy Anne Byers:

I know she's mine because she has my receding hairline and she often cries when a stranger holds her.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Why Love Matters

I would put this book, written by Sue Gerhardt, in the overkill category. The point she wants to make is this: pay attention to your baby when she cries.

It is full of interesting information from developmental psychology and neurology, so you know at the biochemical level why it's important to "regulate their emotions" by being at their beck and call for the first 6 months of life. If parents don't do this there are "attachment" issues, which could lead to behavioral and other psychological problems. And there's also the cortisol thing. When you get stressed, a hormone called cortisol is released. It's produced by the adrenal glands, and it gives you energy to make it through the crisis. It also basically tells all of your other body systems, like the immune system, to put things on hold until the crisis is over. Short crises are handled well. Long crises are not handled well by the body. An adult can get sick, for instance, because of an impaired immune system. An infant can have her brain development affected by high levels of cortisol.

But...I found this article in Slate that calls all this into question. Which makes me think, yeah it's good to read some books like this,  but it's got to be taken with some hefty granules of salt. If they cite one recent study that "suggests" blah, blah, blah, there's no need to freak out and think you're a horrible parent. This is what I'm telling myself, anyway. I still have no idea what being a parent is like.

Today is D minus 3, by the way...

Monday, July 12, 2010

Leaven Life: Bakers' Yeast

Whenever you have aficionados you have snobbery. It’s inevitable. Artisan bread baking aficionados are snobby about their leavening. They think natural leavening (sourdough) is the shit. Bakers yeast is not.

Bakers yeast is what most people bake with. It’s the stuff you find in the baking aisle at the grocery store. Most people use the dried kind, which either comes in packets or small jars. The yeast looks like tiny-tiny tan twigs. You can also sometimes find little cakes of yeast in the refrigerated section. They usually come in one ounce cubes.

This yeast is domesticated. Domestication is what we do to genetically modify our food, and we’ve been doing it for thousands of years.

Take dogs. We can breed dogs to look a certain way. If we're looking at a group of, say, Cockerspaniels, we might decide that we like the ones with longer hair. And if we want the next litter of puppies to have longer hair, we pick a long haired male and longhaired female to breed. It’s more likely that the litter from this couple will have longer hair than the litter from two shorter haired spaniels. Inheritance. Genes. DNA.

We’ve been intentionally doing this with plants for more than ten thousand years. Wheat was just a prairie grass that looked nothing like today’s domesticated grain. We've coaxed bitter, meager wild fruit into the buxom market variety we eat today. By picking and planting the individuals we like, nature has obliged and given us protein rich grains, sweet fruits, and starchy vegetables.

Bakers domesticated yeast by selecting for a strain that eats quickly and farts a lot. (Brewers have done the same thing to get lots of alcohol out of their yeast.) When you catch yeast out of the air and first start using it in your sourdough recipes, you have to wait a long time for it to inflate your bread.

Typically when you make bread, you mix your dough, knead it, and let it sit for a while before you form the loaf. While it sits, it inflates to about twice its original size. With your recently captured wild yeast, this will take maybe 4 to 6 hours, or longer. With bakers yeast, and a warm temperature, it'll take as little as 30 minutes. Obviously this makes things a lot easier, since bakers' yeast speeds up the process and has a fairly consistent rate.

So why use natural leavening? For one thing, you get a more interesting pattern of bubbles in the dough. And by "interesting", artisan bakers mean non-uniform bubbles. They really like big bubbles. Cut a good sourdough loaf in half and you should get a few huge holes, some medium sized ones, as well as the more uniform smaller holes. Bakers yeast will give you pretty much just uniform smaller holes.

Another thing is the taste. Sour dough is a bit sour, though it shouldn't be overwhelmingly so. Sometimes it's described as tangy and maybe a bit "nuttier" than breads made with bakers' yeast. But as a sourdough starter matures, it becomes less tangy and tart. It shouldn't really be all that sour, but the taste is distinct.

Sourdough also gives a thicker, crispier crust to breads. If you're into that.

I end up using bakers' yeast much more often than natural leavening, just because I don't always have 6 to 10 hours to baby-sit a slowly bloating lump of dough. But when I have the time, it's worth it.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Pound's Personae

When it comes to his poetry, Ezra Pound is pretty tough going. Although I do like his shorter, Eastern inspired stuff. Here's one from a collection called Personae:


                Fu I

Fu I loved the high cloud and the hill,
Alas, he died of alcohol.

               Li Po

And Li Po also died drunk.
He tried to embrace a moon
In the Yellow River.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Great First Lines

Recently, I was looking at a copy of Celine's Journey to the End of Night, and it had an afterward written by William T. Vollmann.

Vollmann's been on my radar for a while, although I haven't been able to finish any of his books yet. I'm currently chipping away at his 2009 behemoth, Imperial.

Anyways, back to his afterward. It's got a great opening line. It goes like this:

--Reader, fuck you!

I laughed for about 3 minutes after reading that.

And, since I'm writing about first lines, I'll mention another book I've got lying around my apartment, tempting me to just read it already. Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson starts off like so:

--IN THE BEGINNING, sometimes I left messages in the street.

Crispy Mister

When we visit my wife's family in Worthington, OH, I usually end up eating breakfast at La Chatelaine, a French bakery and cafe. They serve something called a Croque Monsieur, which is basically an open hot ham and cheese sandwich, with Bechamel sauce. 

The apocryphal origin of this sandwich goes like this. In the early 20th century, some Parisian workers accidentally left their lunch pails near a hot radiator, and they found their ham/cheese/butter sandwiches all crisped and delectable. Cafes started serving them with the name Croque Monsieur, or Crispy Mister.

A few weekends ago, I decided to make one of these suckers. The recipe called for a Swiss cheese, like Gruyere, to make a white cheese sauce. Which means you're basically making the Bechamel (a milk based sauce which uses flour as the thickening agent) and stirring in the grated Swiss cheese. So you toast some French bread, put a slice of ham on top, and pour the cheese sauce over it. Then broil. And, fearing this wouldn't be rich enough, I decided to add some extra cholesterol on top in the form of an over-medium fried egg.

It was deliciously messy.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Sub-sub-custodian: Automation

I've been ruined by automated faucets in the bathrooms where I work. Now, every time I use one of those antiquated handle doohickeys in another public restroom, I end up leaving the water running for a good 15 seconds before I realize it's not gonna shut off by itself.

And I've been known to stand with my hands underneath a paper towel dispenser, waiting for it to dispense already, before I realize I have to crank the damn thing.

I'm not even gonna get into the automatic toilet flushers. When they install the automatic ass wipers here at work, I'm in big trouble

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Leaven Life: Sourdough

Yeast is familiar to us for a few reasons, the most appetizing being their critical role in making beer, wine, and bread. At some point, people discovered this cute little trick that yeast does. It eats sugar, shits alcohol, and farts COtwo. (Did I say this was appetizing?)

Yeast is in the air. Many moons ago, probably somewhere in Egypt or Mesopotamia, someone mixed ground wheat with water to bake over a fire. The paste was left out for a while, and when it came time to bake, they found the dough was like twice the size it was before. Yeast farts. When you bake the dough after yeast has done its thing, you get a lighter, spongy-er bread that’s pretty tasty.

The yeast/gas action is known as leavening, a word most of us were probably first exposed to in its negative form: unleavened bread. The Jews use unleavened bread for their Passover celebration. Maybe it was because of those Egyption bastards who had enslaved them. Leavening was probably all the rage along the Nile, and the Jews were like, look at those assholes with their asshole bread all ballooned out and stupid looking. What assholes. Hence, unleavened bread for the Passover.

You can do this today. Mix a cup of flour and a cup of water together in a container and let it sit in the open air for a few hours. Then put a loose-fitting lid on the container, let it sit for a few days, and watch what happens. It starts bubbling. This is COtwo. You have enslaved yeast to build your pyramids of French bread.

Now, it’s kind of hard to do this in Indiana. Some places are famous for the ease with which you can capture yeast out of the air and create a sourdough culture. San Francisco is one of these places. The Midwest is not. I’ve tried to do this several times, and have only been successful once.

[There are also people who think the "yeast in the air" theory is bullshit, and that the yeast is actually already in the flour when you mix it with water. I prefer the airborne yeast theory because it is demonstrably cooler.]

The recipe I used that worked (can't find it at the moment, but there are a bunch online, along with this great article on the topic) called for pineapple juice. This is supposed to create the optimal environment for yeast to survive in your petri dish. Specifically, it produces an acidic environment, which is good for yeast and apparently bad for bacteria. That’s what’s happening in your container there, a battle between yeast and bacteria, and you want the yeast to win. But there’ll always be a little bacteria in your starter, as you keep this bubbling goo going for years and years.

After 3 days or so, you start “feeding” the thing, which means you add equal parts water and flour and stir it up. You’re adding food (sugar) for the yeast to keep them alive, but as I said, some bacteria will stick around in small amounts. The buggers just won’t go away, and that’s what gives the sour flavor to sourdough bread.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Cloud Atlas

It's been a while since I've read a book as creatively structured and stylistically diverse as David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.

I'm putting a mild spoiler notification here...

The structure of the book could be compared to a mountain, with the first five chapters residing on different altitudes or clines. Each cline is a somewhat self-contained short story, and the sixth chapter is the summit of the mountain. Here are the titles of the first 6 chapters and the style they're written in:
  1. "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing"--19th century travelogue at sea
  2. "Letters From Zedelghem"--Modernist, set in the 1930s
  3. "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery"--mystery novel set in the 1970s
  4. "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish"--contemporary cockney gangster style a la a Guy Ritchie script
  5. "An Orison of Somni~451"--Philip K. Dick-ish sci-fi future
  6. "Sloosha's Crossin' An' Ev'rythin' After"--sci-fi even further into the future with Clockwork Orange level invented language (actually, that far into the future, it would be like someone who spoke middle English reading modern English--so it's not an argot but a futuristic version or dialect of English)
These chapters, as I indicated, have nothing to do with each other, for the most part. Chapter 2 is not a continuation of chapter 1. But there is a connection between the two. The main character from chapter two, a young and wayward British musician who's sort of apprenticing with this old, half-blind composer in Bruges, ends up finding a copy of the travelogue that we have read in chapter 1. But that's the extent of the connection. There is no significant role that chapter 1 plays in chapter 2. Maybe all the chapters could be said to have a thematic connection, but the plot connections themselves are tangential.

The same kind of link is made between chapter 2 and 3, 3 and 4, and so on. The previous chapter is almost non-chalantly referenced. That's it.

So, you might be wondering, how many chapters are there? There are 11. And here's another thing I haven't mentioned. The first 5 chapters end in the middle of things. They're cliff-hangers. The sixth chapter is complete, but chapter 7 picks up where chapter 5 left off. Chapter 8 completes chapter 4, 9 completes 3, et cetera. Here's what it looks like using the mountain analogy:

5         7
4                  8
3                            9
2                                       10
1                                                11

You don't get the conclusion of chapter 1 until you travel up the mountain and come back down to the same cline at the end of the book, at chapter 11. In that way, the entire book is a kind of mystery, where threads are lost and picked up again, in a satisfying way. Or maybe I should say, they are unsatifisfying as a typical mystery. What I mean by that is, for the most part, I don't like mysteries. They usually get all neatly wrapped up in the end. Things are too tidy. Life isn't like that. Mitchell links his chapters and supports his themes (according to my reading they are slavery/colonialism/consumerism and human nature), but he leaves a lot unresolved. 

His next book is actually being released tomorrow. It's called The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Jesus' Son

Jesus' Son is a collection of short stories which are linked by common characters. They take place in Iowa or there'a'bouts, in the '70s as far as I can tell. The only other book I've read by Dennis Johnson is his Vietnam epic Tree of Smoke, which was a heck of a lot longer. Jesus' Son is basically a concentrated dose of what he seems to do best: show messed up people doing messed up things, using spare/raw language with flashes of religious imagery now and then. The characters have a  fuckall attitude and are very much in the moment. This is the sort of down-and-out-full-blooded life, sans sophisticated self-consciousness, that American poets have been writing about since Whitman.

It's also damn funny. Especially the story called "Emergency".

The title comes from Lou Reed's song, "Heroine":

--When I'm rushing on my run.
   And I feel just like Jesus' son...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

At the Window

[Wrote this one a while ago.]

At the window I can see
that this is a good morning
to walk a dog.

Socks is rounding the corner,
high stepping it, his paws hopping
like popcorn in the pan.

And there's Buster and his
busy tail which regards no one
and no thing, whacking and
thumping up the sidewalk.

I wonder what their real names
are and if they just might be
the names my wife and I have
given them. We are dogless
and childless and nameless
for that.

I walk to the bathroom door
and ask if she's ready to
go yet, and then I'm back
at the window, watching
a dog I've never seen before,
a gaping mouth that curls
up at the corners, all teeth
and tongue and breath.

There goes Jester, I say to
myself and head over to the
front door when I hear the
roaring flush.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Leaven Life: Yeast

The first quantum revolution was in Biology.

Physicists first started using the word "quantum" in the early 20th century as a way to describe the basic make-up of our universe at the smallest scale.

There was a nagging unanswered question scientists and philosophers had been asking about physical reality for millennia. If you break matter down to smaller and smaller chunks, will you get to the smallest chunk possible, the basic building blocks of matter, or not? Is matter infinitely divisible? We are familiar with the answer to that question now. Matter is made of atoms, and smaller atom like particles, so yes, matter is made of building blocks.

And energy, it turns out, comes in small packages as well, called quanta (plural form of quantum). It is quantized. It all fits together with the e-equals-emcee-squared concept. Matter and energy are equivalent and ultimately grainy, pixelated and, at the smallest scale, freakin weird. We refer to this discovery about physical reality as the quantum revolution.

But the living world is also quantized. Everything that is alive is made up of a bunch of small building blocks called cells. Your cat, the tree in your lawn, the ants on your floor, the mold on your bread, they’re all made out of a bunch of little blocks, or sacks, with molecules inside. Cells can combine to form all kinds of shapes and sizes, organs and organisms, one of the most complicated being homo sapiens and their conscious brain.

If you chop up a living creature, you will eventually get to the smallest chunks they are composed of, the cells. Of course, you can chop up cells too and look at the molecular stew inside, but at that point we aren’t looking at the biological world anymore. The point is that plants and animals aren’t just homogenous bodies which can be divided in any old way. We are made of organs made of cells, which are then, yes, tiny bags of chemicals.

Robert Hooke discovered the first cell back in the 17th century, and the cell theory of life was first proposed in 1839 by a couple'a German guys. It seems like we don't hear as much about this revolution as we do about quantum physics, but it was just as epoch making. Our bodies are communities of trillions of tiny living blobs. Weird.

Life on earth began when the first cell came into existence. It took a while for single cells to start congregating to form multi-celled organisms, but there have always been single celled organisms hanging around since the big-biological-bang. One of them is bacteria. Another is yeast. And yeast, my friends, is what gives life to bread.

Friday, June 18, 2010


This is another short novel I've read recently, by Nicholson Baker. Ok, what to say about this book. Hmm. I liked it. I did like it. The writing is good. It's all dialogue, so I should say the dialogue is good. Witty. Accessible. The characters...well there are only two of them. Um. It's one long phone sex conversation. The entire thing. Phone sex.

This is a good book.

I've never read any erotica before, and this definitely counts as erotic. Literary erotica. Erotic literature. It may not be your thing. But I do recommend this book because of the way Baker's characters develop a real connection and intimacy during, and in spite of, something as superficial and smutty as phone sex.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Happy Bloomsday

All of the action in James Joyce's Ulysses takes place on June 16th, 1904. Fans of the book celebrate the date as Bloomsday, named after the main character Leopold Bloom. It's basically another Irish holiday excuse to drink. Here's a refresher on Ulysses--a comix adaptation of the novel. Looks like it's not completed, though.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

By Night In Chile

I'm gonna start going back and writing at least a few sentences about the books I've read lately. Hopefully I'll warm up and start doing some full-blown reviews in the future.

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano contains two paragraphs. The first paragraph takes up just about the entire 152 pages of the book. The second paragraph is one line. The whole thing is an all night rambling monologue by this old Chilean priest. He basically tells his life story, which intertwines with the literary history of his country over a good chunk of the 20th century.

At this point, after reading The Savage Detectives and 2666, I find it hard to be objective about Bolano. This is how it is with me. I read two or more brilliant books by an author, or watch two or more brilliant movies by a director, and I'm convinced they are geniuses. And can do no wrong.

By Night In Chile doesn't disappoint. The style is similar to Savage and 2666, in that he's able to jump from one story to another without losing you, without losing momentum, and his typical themes and motifs are there, buggery and all. Except maybe grotesque violence. I don't remember grotesque violence being in there. Then again, maybe it was, but I'm just so numbed by 2666 that it paled in comparison.

If there's a weakness to this, no I don't think there is one. I tried.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Leaven Life

For about 10 years now I've been baking bread. Some years have seen more loaves than others. A professor of mine at Huntington College was the first person to show me how it's done. He taught me how to make dough and knead it by hand, and that's the way I've been doing it ever since.

I'd like to really get back into baking, so I thought I should do some regular posts on the subject. Fresh bread is one of my favorite foods. The smell fills the whole house, the rustic loaves look like a frickin still life by Chardin, and the taste makes you want to smack your mother.

Here's the loaf I've been making for about a year now. It's a whole wheat boule made with a brotform. This is the loaf I'll be writing about in the next few Leaven Life posts, and I'll get into brotforms and yeast and kneading and all that in the future. Right now I'll just list the ingredients (some of the amounts aren't included because there are two ways I make this--with bakers yeast and with wild yeast):

whole milk
1/2c oats
1tsp salt
1/8c oil
1/8c brown sugar
1 egg
1/4c wheat germ
wheat flour
bread flour

Oh, and as a p s, I'm not writing this as a master baker or anything. Please point out if I'm doing something stupid or if you have a tip that'll help me out or if I've done a sucky job of explaining something.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What's up now

Recently I was feeling guilty about how many books I buy, and then BAM! I read this. The more books you have in your house, the smarter your kids'll be. And thank goodness I know now that correlation is causation, so there's no doubt these studies are solid. This is my license to buy. Check it out:

"The study (authored by M.D.R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikorac and Donald J. Treimand) looked at samples from 27 nations, and according to its abstract, found that growing up in a household with 500 or more books is 'as great an advantage as having university-educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father.'"

500 books! So like 1000 books would be twice the advantage of having university-educated rather than unschooled parents, and four times the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father, right?! I need to get more bookshelves. For the sake of my not-so-distant-future children.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Smoked Chicken

This past weekend I smoked a chicken for the first time. Well, I cooked a chicken with smoke. Actually, I don’t have a smoker, I just put some soaked mesquite wood chips on charcoals. Turns out, it doesn’t work out that well if you put wet wood directly on the coals, ‘cause it kind of dampens the heat. And you need heat for an hour to cook a frying chicken on a charcoal grill.

So I had to finish it in the conventional type oven, but man was it tasty. I soaked the chicken in brine for an hour beforehand, and rubbed the following spices on its tender body: curry, cumin, chili powder, black pepper, cinnamon. Come to think of it, those are just about the exact spices I used for my chicken curry. Anyway, et vas juicy. And smoky. I ended up simmering the carcass with some carrots and celery to make chicken broth, which has quite the mesquite flavor.

Also made some fresh salsa with black beans. I’ve been trying to make stuff with fresh beans. And by fresh I mean soaking dried beans overnight and boiling them for an hour. I know you can get real fresh beans at farmers markets, or so I’ve read. Never seen them at the grocery, though I don’t know if I’ve looked. I just want to stay away from canned stuff, if possible.

Monday, June 7, 2010

More lists

Classics I want to read:

Histories (Herodotus)
Peloponnesian War (Thucydides)
Decameron (Boccaccio)
Discourses On Livy (Machiavelli)
Essays (Montaigne)
Faust (Goethe)
Demons; Notes from the Underground (Dostoevsky)
Middlemarch (Eliot)

Anything by Balzac
....               Stendhal
....               Swift

20th Century fiction I want to read:

Love in the Time of Cholera (Garcia Marquez)
The Tin Drum (Grass)
Hunger; Growth of the Soil (Hamsun)
Finish Proust (already read volume 1 of Remembrance of Things Past)
Blindness (Saramago)
To the Lighthouse (Woolf)
Catch-22 (Heller)
Nostromo (Conrad)
On The Road (Kerouac)
The Bell Jar (Plath)
The Master and Margarita (Bulgakov)
More Murakami (already read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)
Anything by Coetzee
....               Alice Munroe

21st century fiction I want to read:

Netherland (O'Neill)
Oblivion (Wallace)
Cloud Atlas (Mitchell--currently reading)
Middlesex (Eugenides)
Austerlitz (Sebald)
Nazi Literature in the Americas; Amulet; The Skating Rink; Antwerp (Bolano)
The Known World (Jones)
Anything by Coetzee
....               Alice Munroe
....               Zadie Smith

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Didn't finish

I was reading this essay on the Millions, about books started but never finished. And this piece about the books you feel like you should have read already, or want to read before you die.

Here's my list of books I’ve started and want to go back and finish:

Don Quixote (Cervantes)
Tristram Shandy (Sterne)
Gravity’s Rainbow (Pynchon)
Mason and Dixon (Pynchon)
War and Peace (Tolstoy)
On Human Nature (Hume)
Madame Bovary (Flaubert)
The Metamorphosis (Kafka--no excuse for this, I've never read any Kafka)
The Golden Notebook (Lessing)
The Magic Mountain (Mann)
Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)
Invisible Man (Ellison)
Galapagos (Vonnegut)
Democracy in America (Tocqueville)
The Order of Things (Foucault)

Books I’ve started and probably won’t finish.

The Evolution of God (Wright)
Sources of the Self (Taylor)
Midnight's Children (Rushdie)
Count of Monte Cristo (Dumas)
Suite Francais (Nemiravsky)
Emile (Rousseau)
Rabbit, Run (Updike)
I'm sure there's more...

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Men's Room

I need to do a little public service announcement for women. This may not come as a shock to some of you, but I don't think you all are aware of this. Some men don't wash their hands after using the restroom. And it's not just the guys who look like they don't wash their hands. If you're looking at a guy and you think, "He looks like the kind of guy that doesn't wash his hands," he doesn't. But, as I witnessed today, it's not just those dudes. It's also some of the other dudes. This guy had on a suit and tie and was well put together, nice haircut, close shave. Dangled and left (no, those aren't the same thing). And what's worse, he had a briefcase in one hand the entire time. That's kind of impressive, actually, because of the dexterity involved. But he could not have been very precise in his execution. And he walked right out without even running his hands under some water.

The more you know.

(I just realized this is the second post I've done in two weeks about the public restroom. Maybe I should rename this blog "Sub-sub-custodian".)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fruit Flies

They came without our permission.
There was no introduction, no
consideration for the untidiness of our apartment,
the sink full of dishes, half a lime balancing
on the countertop next to the rotting banana peel.

In fact, they didn't seem to mind
the opened bottle of wine, the cheese grater
caked with cheddar. They weren't put out
by the refried beans in our trash
or the chopped onions and olives
on the cutting-board.

What else could we do? We tidied up,
said goodnight, and turned out the lights,
tip-toeing into the bathroom.
But they were there too, hovering
over the faucet, doubled by the mirror,
red eyed and exhausted.

They were above our heads
as we brushed our teeth, our eyes
fixed upward as if we were in a
renaissance painting, gazing
at an angel or the crucifixion.

The next morning you were already sick
of them. You stood in the kitchen
in your nightgown with a bowl of cereal,
wondering aloud how there could be
so many, how they could multiply
overnight while we slept.

You looked up ways to kindly ask them to leave.
We are not cruel. An empty spaghetti jar
would do, full of apple-cider vinegar
and a few swirls of dish-soap.

Our decency kept us in the bedroom,
reading on a bright Saturday morning,
while they drowned one by one.

But still there were a few left, crawling
on the blue tiled wall above the stove,
slowly navigating between the trash can
and the refrigerator.

Maybe we've just killed the vinegar loving strain,
I said, mumbling something about genetics.

Wine works too, you said as you poured
the deep red Cabernet into an empty olive jar
then reached for the dish-soap.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Dream of an Expectant Father

My wife and I are expecting our first baby, a girl, in July. Last night I dreamed she was born. I walked into a room and the nurses showed me my newborn--a young girl who looked about 10 years old. I picked her up and looked down at her feet, which were dangling about 2 inches off the floor.

Oh, there was some mistake. This wasn't my baby. They led me to another room and showed me an infant. "This is your baby." I bent down and looked at her face. Her eyes appeared to be Asian or, I worried, she had Down Syndrome. But the nurses came in and measured the distance between her eyes. "Oh, she's just fine," they said. "Her eyes aren't too close together." Phwew! I felt so relieved.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Urban Wildlife

This spring, I've seen deer, a fox, ducklings, and a bald eagle. All in Indianapolis.

View The Wild in Indianapolis, Spring 2010 in a larger map


Yesterday, at work, in one of the stalls in the public bathroom, I found pepper. Those little pepper packets from the condiment bar. In the stall. Some not opened, some opened with pepper spilling out, some completely empty. Pepper. By the toilet. In a public restroom.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Chicken Curry

I made chicken curry for the first time last night. This is the recipe I used. As usual, it took me much longer than the estimated time. Well, it says 30 minutes cooking time, and I probably cooked it for 40 minutes. But it took me an hour and a half from start to first bite. I usually multiply the estimated time by 2 or 3. That's usually how long it takes for me, especially if I'm making it for the first time.

I've never made an Indian dish, but I've been craving it lately. It wasn't that difficult. I added some chili powder, cayenne pepper, and garlic powder, which wasn't in the recipe. The spice level was probably a 5 or 6 out of 10. And the cinnamon seemed a bit much for me. Probably cut that back next time, or leave it out entirely.

When I was chopping the onions and carrots, I kept thinking about a story in Interpreter of Maladies. I don't have it in front of me, but it takes place in the US. Some kid regularly visits the home of an Indian family. The husband is a professor or something, and the wife stays at home. I think they're childless, so maybe she's babysitting the kid. Anyway, the wife cooks their meals every day, and it's this long involved process. She spends hours (I think--at any rate, it takes a long time) sitting in the middle of their living room floor chopping tons of vegetables with this huge knife. I really liked those stories, and often, when I cut vegetables, I think about that Indian woman with the long knife sitting on the floor, chopping away.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What is a Philosopher?

That was Simon Critchley's question in his essay on the new NYT philosophy series called The Stone. He's the moderator of the series, and his essay was supposed to kick things off.

Kind of a weird piece. The internets rumbled with the groaning of analytic philosophers, and I can understand why.

[Quick primer on the two main denominations in the contemporary academic philosophy world: There are analytic philosophers and there are Continental philosophers. One way to understand the distinction is to consider why each is hard to read, for different reasons. Analytic philosophers are hard to read like computer programs are hard to read. They're full of precisely defined words, and sometimes just letters and symbols, and you have to have your philosophical dictionary out and plug and chug the definitions in there to understand what the hell they're saying. It may be a bitch to read, but like a computer program, you can be sure that it either makes sense or it won't work. Someone can point out your mistake and you have to admit you're wrong. Well, not everyone admits they're wrong, but by and large, that's the way it usually works.

Continental philosophy is hard to read because it doesn't use precisely defined words. I mean, they're using English...or German or French or whatever (Continental does refer to that Euro euphemism "the Continent"). The words have definitions. But the style is much squishier and lends itself to stretching words and concepts to fit a philosophical argument. And it's hard to read because the argument itself can be hard to follow, and sometimes gets lost in literary type flourishes, that usually aren't very good from a literary point of view anyway. So, the criticism is, it's much harder to pin someone down and say, aha!, look here see, what you wrote was wrong. Because there's plenty of wiggle room and opportunity for showmanship, which lends itself to confidence games rather than clearly understood questions and (attempted) answers.

The ideal analytic philosopher is just nails when it comes to logical argumentation. The ideal Continental philosopher is damn clever and cryptic.

These are just caricatures of the two styles of philosophy. It's not a necessarily useful way to categorize all philosophy out there, but it's one way to explain the context of the academic discipline today. Another helpful bit of information is that analytic philosophy currently tends to be very much an applied discipline. I mean, it does have abstract topics like metaphysics, but it also deals with the philosophy of science. More specifically, philosophy of psychology, artificial intelligence, philosophy of physics, biology, et cetera. Continental philosophy tends to be about more abstract, metaphysical and existential stuff.]

Back to Critchley's essay. He doesn't mention any of the great philosophy being done on practical topics, like bioethics and philosophy of mind and philosophy of physics (I'm probably giving away my preference for analytic philosophy here). And there are some really great popular books out there that translate this stuff into non-specialist language for the rest of us. But the message he delivered in his essay was that the philosopher is basically out of touch, but gosh aren't you intrigued by how wonderfully out of touch he is (it's a "he", definitely--the only philosophers Critchley talks about are ancient Greek dudes). The philosopher is "the one who is silly", "the person who has time or who takes time", and, let's give a fair warning, "PHILOSOPHY KILLS".


Is it that hard to write an apology for philosophy? Philosophy helps us get our thinking straight. It's better to think straight than to think crooked. Try it out. Moving on.

I just came across this website today, which is a great example of philosophy being put to good use: Got a tough question that hurts your thinker? Post it on the website, and a professional philosopher will do his or her diggity darndest to answer it. Seems incredibly practical to me.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


I don't even know why I feel the need to justify why I haven't been posting here. But I did say I would post more often, so I feel like I need an excuse. Ok, excuses, excuses. Let's see. I moved. That's the big one, really. I moved a whole 4 blocks, and it unsettled my world for a while.

Anyway, I thought it would be a good idea to try and write at least a few sentences about every book I read. Every time I update my Goodreads account, I feel like I should put something in the review section, and I think, "Aaaaah, I'll do that later." Never happens.

So, starting with the next book I finish, I'll do that. But I did want to make a confession, though. I was talking to a friend recently, who also has a Goodreads account. He was saying that he noticed (someone else might have pointed it out to him) that the books he reads are almost entirely written by men. And a quick survey of the last 100 books I've read, covering about 2 years, revealed the same pattern in my reading. Six books were written by women (intense mathematical analysis tells me that this amounts to 6%), and 3 of those titles were by the same woman (Marilynne Robinson). So, really I've only read 3 female authors in two years. I'm not sure what that says about me. Is this something I need to consciously correct?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Diaz on Reading

OK, I kind of remember what Diaz said the other night about novels and reading. He was asked by someone in the crowd if he ever got any push back from his editor or publisher about the use of Spanish in his book.

The short answer was, no, he didn't get much push back. Because he would have just pulled the book and his publishers knew that. But guys, he said (he said that a lot, guys), the only reason that would be an issue is that we've forgotten how to read. When we used to read as kids, we were always coming across a word that we didn't know and we had to look it up. We had to ask questions, we had to do some work, and now that we're adults we think all of that is behind us. Sure, reading can be fun and entertaining and even mindless, but a novel, he said, a novel can be something that does more than that. It can be something you experience like you experience life, which is to say, something you don't completely understand. Just about every day you hear someone or read something that you don't quite understand, someone is speaking in a different language, like Spanish or IT-nerd-ish or politico-conspiracy-ish, and you have to either ask a question or let it go. You either do some work and find out the meaning of that that foreign phrase or that jargon, or you go on with your life and realize that you can't understand everything, you can't control everything, that life is ultimately huge and unwieldy and beyond taming.

And guys, he said, that's why a novel can be such a great form of community building, because ultimately the best way to somehow manage life is to realize that our understanding is really an interpretation. Any meaning we can derive is in the form of interpretation, which we know is in itself a fickle thing, and the best interpretation you're ever going to get is one that includes many voices, many viewpoints. Other people, other readers, who bring their own experiences to the novel and understand it in their peculiar, sometimes even fucked-up, ways can add to the conversation about what this novel "means".

And that meaning, I'd say (no longer paraphrasing Diaz, and hardly being original here), can be so many things, but the best thing you could say about a novel is just that it's true. Fiction is true when you get that sort of it's-funny-because-it's-true feeling, which is a cliche about cliched stand-up comedy. But it's that feeling. The realization that, yeah, this is what life is like, this is my experience somehow snatched and twisted a bit and injected into language in a way I've never seen before. And you somehow understand your life better and feel as if you can live better because of it. Because you've got just a little firmer pinkie grip than you had before, and that's why you keep reading.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Junot Diaz

I saw Junot Diaz last night at Butler University. He kept it very short, just read two pieces. And the first he read off his iPhone because he forgot to print it out.

He seemed to have three personae: Jersey ghetto (which he was in most of the time), Dominican (he spoke in Spanish to some Dominicans in the crowd), and professor (when he expounded during the Q&A). Pretty entertaining. Made me want to go back and read *The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao* again. Haven't read *Drown* yet. Probably will soon.

He said some interesting things about reading and novels and how important they are. Well, I forget exactly what he said, but this is what I remember: reading is way more important to him than writing. I’m always encouraged when I hear that. I can get kind of stupidly depressed when I think about the fact that I want to write something, but I haven't. Everyone wants to write. Not everyone can. But you can read. And, I’m remembering now, I love hearing Borges (in his Norton lectures--they're on CD!) say that first and foremost he's a reader. And an interview by Bolano, where he says that what's really important is that we keep reading--writing, not so much. Is there a Spanish language connection here? Anyway, you can do worse than be a pathological reader, I guess.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Correlation is Causation

Apparently this is old news, but I'm just now learning about this: Wish I'd known sooner.

Friday, January 22, 2010

David Foster Wallace

Have you read that guy? Oh my gosh. He's good. Was good. If you didn't know, he committed suicide in September of 2008, which makes it a little awkward when he's writing about depression and suicide. But he did it so well. And with levity, and it works, it makes you smile, you can't help it.
(And if you think that's not the sort of thing that should make you smile, then you should not read this guy. Because he's one of those people, like Mel Brooks or Trey Parker, who has shown us that anything can be funny. *Anything*. I mean, without these people we would never have laughed at the Holocaust or AIDS or self-annihilation by microwave oven. And that would have been a shame.)

Early last year I read *Infinite Jest* and it changed my life. I said, Yes, this is it, this is brilliant, this is the kind of book I've been looking for my entire life. And then I went on with my life and basically forgot about that hefty novel (it's 1100 pages). Then I recently picked up *Brief Interviews with Hideous Men* and I remembered, Oh yeah, this guy exists, or existed not so long ago, David Foster Wallace, and he was a genius.

In case you're wondering, Brief Interviews is a collection of short stories, and the title comes from these fictional interviews that are kind of evenly spaced throughout the book. You don't know what the questions are, but the interviewees are all misogynists. I know, hilarious, right?

Here's an excerpt, where two graduate students are being interviewed. Their names are K--- and E---, and they are responding to the same question:

K--- 'What does today's woman want. That's the big one.'
E--- 'I agree. It's the big one all right. It's the what-do-you-call...'
K--- 'Or put another way, what do today's women *think* they want versus what do they really deep down *want*.'
E--- 'Or what do they think they're *supposed* to want.'

And you can imagine what two over-educated, theory-soaked misogynists can tell you about what women *really*, *deep down* want.

Anyway, it's a great book, and I recommend it as an intro to DFW if you're not quite up for Infinite Jest. Also, here's a great essay I found about Wallace at The Point Magazine:

[And yes, I'm one of those people who uses the words "genius" and "brilliant" a bit lightly. Which is one way to divide the world. Those who do and those who don't. The way you might categorize carbonated beverage fans as Coke-lovers or Pepsi-lovers; taxonomical biologists as lumpers or splitters; or physicists as strict-Copenhagen-ers or non-strict-Copenhagen-ers.]

The Post Where Sub-sub Lightens Up

I've been thinking that maybe I should start using this blog more like a blog. In fact, I somehow feel like I owe it to people to make it a bit bloggy-er, if they've gone to all the trouble of clicking into this particular corner of the virtual cosmos, with the expectation that they will find something informal and personal and confessional and all. So I'm thinking that this is what I owe, and really I've been keeping myself to myself very selfishly. The thing I realized (I had an epiphany) is that I'm very special. Like one in six and a half billion, a unique snowflake, and whatever else is unique like that, like a crooked branch on a gnarly tree, or a constellation of freckles on a pale lower back, etc.. And what I need to do is spend loads of time expressing myself in the most idiosyncratic fashion I can muster, with confidence that I'll find this all extremely rewarding.

So I will post more. I will give my opinion and do my best to keep facts, figures, and numbers (scientific, statistical, monetary, astrological) out of it. And I will try not to be holier than thou. Because, I'm being painfully honest with everyone including myself, I have posted some very serious and preachy stuff on this blog. Back to the epiphany: I've been taking myself too seriously. To be fair, no one else was, so I felt that if anyone was going to take me seriously it had to be me. But life is short (the epiphany), and it's better when I'm not so serious. If I'm going to be serious again, I'll warn you beforehand. But I'll try not to do it.

What will this blog be about, now? Well, mostly about what I've been reading. Probably. Or movies and music, that sort of stuff. So, here we draw a line in the Sub-sub space, below this line we do not venture, unless we are curious about how serious and preachy I used to be. But don't bring it up again. Please.