Friday, October 10, 2008


I found these photographs at an antique book store in northern New Hampshire.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Erin Mckean really likes dictionaries and her enthusiasm is infectious. Just watch this video. Now I'm a tad stalkerish, so I signed up to follow Mckean's word a day on Twitter. It's fabulous. Here are two of my recent favorites. Preenacter: someone who enacts "historical" events that haven't happened yet, e.g., the first landing on Mars. Or, polinymous: having a personal name that is also a place name, e.g., a girl named Ann Arbor. But my favorite so far is mooreeffoc: relating to familiar things suddenly seen in a new and different way. What's the etymology of this wonderful word?

Though this word is rare to the point of never being used in its ostensible sense, but only as a keyword to initiate discussion, it has been keeping illustrious company, since its few appearances in print have been in works by G K Chesterton, J R R Tolkien and Charles Dickens.
Dickens invented it, if that’s the right word to use. He mentions it in his autobiography, when he describes his poverty-stricken youth:
"In the door there was an oval glass plate, with COFFEE-ROOM painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee-room now, but where there is such an inscription on glass, and read it backward on the wrong side MOOR-EEFFOC (as I often used to do then, in a dismal reverie,) a shock goes through my blood."
In his biography of Dickens, Chesterton said that it denoted the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle. Tolkien read more into it still in his work On Fairy-stories:
"The word Mooreeffoc may cause you to realise that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits."

Friday, September 12, 2008

Tidying Up

I’ve been reflecting lately on the organization of my email folders. It’s a trivial thing, much like cleaning one’s house. The trick, of course, is to find a place to put everything, but what interests me is the choice of storage place. Ideally we find a location that’s intuitive enough to find the item again, but there’s also the question of how the storage place reflects the item’s place in our lives. My old sweaters go into cedar chests pushed into the corners of various rooms. My old love letters go in boxes under my bed. So, too, with email. I’ve taken a closer look at the way I organize my virtual space, and much like the way I organize my house, email storage tells me something about my past, something about my relationship with the items I’m storing, and something about changes in my life.

Very few of my friends get their own folder. Most of them are subsumed in the "fun" folder (where I file anything that is remotely pleasing or funny or social or just has nowhere else to go) or the "Blackwell" folder if meeting these friends had anything to do with my time at Blackwell Publishing where I used to work. These are usually co-workers or editors from other publishers or authors who have become friends.

The “fun” folder is where I file emails from friends who don’t have their own folders, which always makes me wonder what that says about our relationship. On Facebook each friend has his or her own profile. On email many of my friends get lumped together. Seems undignified somehow and I occasionally feel guilty about it. My cousin Sam, for example, deserves his own folder. He shouldn’t be sharing a folder with Elizabeth, who I barely know and hardly like (but whose correspondence I need to keep track of nonetheless).

Some of the friends who have their own folders are no longer close friends. "Barbara", for example, is someone I was very close with years ago. We were working on our PhDs together. She finished, I didn’t. She moved to Scotland and we drifted apart but now and then I look at that folder and remember not only how close we were but also why we were close. Looking through some of our older correspondence, going through all the digital details of our lives, I realize how many things we gabbed about. But in some ways it’s like reading someone else’s mail; the struggles and events we discussed might be generally familiar to everyone, but any direct access to the urgency of those emotions is long gone. I’m not sure what to do with “Barbara”. To stick her into “fun” would be to diminish her significance in my life. Yet we barely speak anymore.

Another folder belongs to Rob, even though we were never really close friends. I met Rob on years ago and though there were never any sparks between us, we had a great connection and we stayed in touch. It's significant to me that I gave him his own folder. I’m not sure I can explain why, but even now I wouldn’t change it. Somehow he’s not someone to lump in with the rest.

“Jon and Jerome” have a joint folder because I met Jon through Jerome and for a brief time there were a lot of three-way messages.

Jeff, my boyfriend, and Peter, my ex, each have their own folders.

“Tami” has a folder even though much of the content is content-less: “Thanks!!”, “You’re welcome”, “Have a great day!”, etc. This style is uniquely Tami and so the folder and its content-less content stays despite the amount of space it occupies. To delete the “you’re welcome” emails would be to strip her of her Taminess and her Taminess is the reason we’re friends, so…

Katie’s messages all go into A-Blog. Which brings me to the folder-naming scheme.

My various essay, book ideas and miscellaneous writing projects are in folders named A-[insert folder name here] so that they’re sorted at the top of the alphabetical list of folders. The folders named Z-[insert name] are the ones I don't really want on my radar daily but I want to keep around just in case. They get sorted at the bottom. There are 9 A- folders and 4 Z-folders. Once a writing assignment is completed, it changes from an A- folder to a Z- folder.

Eminem has his own folder because I used to be obsessed with him. At one point I started making up little stories about meeting him and also commented in detail on his music, particularly his lyrical genius. That folder stays. Forever.

I’ve always wondered how others organize their personal email folders.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Desert is a Dish Best Served...

What is your philosophy?
You don't get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate.
You deserve what you negotiate.
Desert is meaningless. free polls

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Artistry of the Aggregator

How do you show the richness of your inner life? What is its evidence? The creators of WALL-E had this problem, though it's a problem we all face in some way or other. God only knows. Repetition. Conformity. Data entry. Norms of expectation. We all cloak the bull's eye lantern within us, to use a metaphor from William James. But despite giving WALL-E wide eyes that fold down like binoculars, or hands that clasp like a child saying "oh goodie!", the boys and girls at Pixar still had to devise a way for WALL-E to convey his love for EVE and the accompanying joy he felt inside. So they made him a collector of idiosyncratic things--bras, fire extinguishers, paddles, empty ring cases, hubcaps--naturally, of course, since he was meant to be a garbage collector, only now his personality flourishes with each discriminating choice. And it's remarkable how alive he becomes when he combines this stuff. One of the most marvelous scenes in the film is when he uses a hubcap as a top hat to mimic the dance in Hello, Dolly!

::::::Put on your Sunday clothes there's lots of world out there!::::

Anyway, all WALL-E wants to do is hold EVE's hand--if only he can touch it!!!--because that's what he sees in Hello, Dolly!. Collection. Combination. Mimicry. It's part of what makes him alive.

I mention this because I have to disagree with David Brooks's latest piece of cultural criticism. The old code of intellectual one-upsmanship has vanished, Brooks says. In its place has arrived a new code, the code of Higher Eclectica. Whereas an intellectual snob in the 60s might quote from the hierophants of High Modernism, the Eliots, the Pounds, the Trillings...or later the Derridas, the Foucaults, and de Man...nowadays anyone with any pretension to intellectual seriousness collects. But it's not just any kind of collection. It must, Brooks notes, contain "nuggets of coolness" from the "obscure niches of the culture market." Sez Brooks:
This [cultural] transition has produced some new status rules. In the first place, prestige has shifted from the producer of art to the aggregator and the appraiser. Inventors, artists and writers come and go, but buzz is forever. Maximum status goes to the Gladwellian heroes who occupy the convergence points of the Internet infosystem — Web sites like Pitchfork for music, Gizmodo for gadgets, Bookforum for ideas, etc.

My disagreement with Brooks begins with the observation that this is nothing new, certainly not in American literature. In fact, there is a deep and rich history to the artistry of the aggregator. The difference between then and now is that it's been democratized with the Web. It's also prospered. Take a look at this graphic from Kevin Kelly. It represents the profit-making elements of a Long Tail economy, whether it be songs, books, websites, movies and so on.
When explaining the Long Tail, Kelly points out that almost everyone makes a switch in what they're talking about. In pockets 1 and 2 in the graph, people talk about creators. But when people get to explaining the Long Tail in pocket 3, they switch and start talking about aggregators of other creators' work. "What happens to the creator?" Kelly asks. His answer:
The creator is dropped when we get to the long tail "pocket of profit" because the long tail is not profitable for the creator. It's profitable only for the audience and aggregators.

Kelly's talking about money making opportunities here, but Walt Whitman knew it applied equally well to poetry and the American experience. The poetry of yesteryear focused on individual experiences crystallized in works by single creators. The principal object, Wordsworth had said, was to choose incidents and situations from common life. But Whitman lit up the American sky by showing that there was poetry in aggregating, seizing upon the diverse ways of life and then laying it down for the record. The aggregator is also a creator--that's Whitman's genius. What is Leaves of Grass but a collection of nuggets from the "obscure niches of the culture market"? The interminably long lists of places, nouns piling on nouns, and gerunds flying this way and that, the pay off in sheer size and diversity--it's like he was writing a blog. (It was this thought that led me to combine two things in my previous post: Whitman and the gorgeous collection of old photographs I recently came across here.)

Nor is Whitman alone in this regard. T.S. Eliot, chief priest of modernism, darling of the old snobbery, mastered the artistry of the aggregator as well. The "heap of broken images" that is the Wasteland, all the allusions, quotes, the verbal collage--it's all a prayer against the fear represented by "a handful of dust," the fear that all of life's experiences may never amount to anything, that the whole will always be equal to, never more than the sum of its parts. The poem is paradoxical because what we collect, however haphazardly, comes to mean something, or at any rate, yearns to.

Does the aggregator create something of value? Is he an artist? I left the movie WALL-E sharing in that tiny robot's joy. I tend to think so.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Aggregating Whitman, Words 1856, Pics 1941

Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the walk of dreams,
I fear those realities are to melt from under your feet and hands;
Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem,
I whisper with my lips close to your ear,
I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you.
There is no endowment in man or woman that is not tallied in you.
What widens within you, Walt Whitman?
Each of us inevitable, each of us limitless
Each of us allowed the eternal purport of the earth
Flood-tide of the river, flow on!
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more
to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships,
And the thick-stemmed pipes of steamboats, I looked.
These and all else were to me the same as they are to you,
I project myself a moment to tell you--also I return.
What is it, then, between us?
It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw patches down upon me also.
Now I am curious, curious what gods can exceed these that clasp me by the hand
Curious what is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman
or man that looks in my face
Thrive, cities! Flow on, river! Frolic on, crested and scallop-edged waves!
We descend upon you and all things, we arrest you all,
We realize the soul only by you, you faithful solids and fluids
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I am good-fortune.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

At the Olympics: One Song, Two Girls

This story from the Wall Street Journal about lip syncing at the opening ceremony instantly reminded me of my adolescent years when it was revealed to me that the female voice in C & C Music Factory belonged to a large, off-camera woman, not the skinny woman moving her lips and hips in the popular "Gonna Make You Sweat" video.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Nine-year-old Lin Miaoke became an instant global celebrity when she ostensibly sang "Ode to the Motherland" Friday night, clad in a red party dress and her hair in pigtails. But the voice heard around the world was that of 7-year-old Yang Peiyi. Officials have said that while Ms. Yang's voice was "perfect," Ms. Lin's appearance was more suitable.

For a trip back to the early 90s with the C & C Music Factory, go here.

Image: screenshot from "Gonna Make You Sweat" Youtube video