December 2010

Emily Dickinson

180: a half-circle of years since the birth of Emily Dickinson. I got the idea of doing this podcast around 2:00 p.m. yesterday and sent out a bunch of emails expecting that maybe a third of the recipients would be able to make recordings of themselves reading and talking about Dickinson. Instead, almost everyone did! I also advertised for participants on Twitter and Facebook, and got several more volunteers that way. So this episode is twice as long as usual, but that’s O.K., because hey — it’s a party! (Albeit a low-key one, as Dickinson probably would’ve preferred.) This is not a scholarly discussion of Dickinson; check out Open Source Radio’s podcast with Helen Vendler if you’d like something more analytical. We are just poets, artists, novelists, knitters, musicians… appreciators of poetry reading and musing about one of the giants of world literature.

Participants: Kelli Russell Agodon, Ivy Alvarez, Patricia F. Anderson, Rachel Barenblat, Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Bob BrueckL, Sherry Chandler, Brenda Clews, Teju Cole, Jason Crane, Anna Dickie, Jessica Fox-Wilson, Dick Jones, Collin Kelley, Alison Kent, Clayton Michaels, Divya Rajan, Deb Scott, Nic S., Steven Sherrill, Carolee Sherwood, Hannah Stephenson, Christine Swint and Donna Vorreyer.

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

It doesn’t seem that long ago — around 2000, maybe? — that I first heard someone say “TMI” and had to ask what it meant. This morning, as news breaks that the anarchistic, world-wide non-organization of geeks known as Anonymous have launched DDoS attacks against the websites of MasterCard, Swedish prosecutors, and others they consider to be unfairly targeting WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, it occurs to me that the problem or scandal of “too much information” is very much at the heart of what’s shaping up to be the first global information war — call it WIW I, or perhaps WWWW I (World Wide Web War I).

What was it I’d said that prompted one of my New Jersey cousins to say, laughingly, “TMI, Dave!” that first time? Knowing me, probably a reference to gross bodily functions. It’s interesting how often our concerns for privacy and secrecy boil down to the desire for a figurative fig-leaf over our private parts. By a curious accident, the U.S. government’s furious reaction to the so-called Cablegate leaks immediately follows the furor in the press about the new “security” measures in American airports requiring all passengers to submit to complete physical transparency via scanner, or else endure invasive pat-downs many liken to sexual assault. Now it is Assange, the public face of the otherwise secretive Wikileaks organization, being accused of sexual assault, and once again, it is right-wing libertarians and left-wing anti-imperialists who are loudest in the defense of what we see as a civil rights or human rights issue. But while mainstream conservatives were happy to fan the flames of public discontent over Airport Gategate, on Cablegate they’ve joined with mainstream liberals in echoing or amplifying the government’s propaganda.

As regular Via Negativa readers know, I rarely post about political issues directly — this is only the 19th time I’ve assigned a post to the Rants category, as opposed to 187 posts with a more personal or elliptical approach to politics in the Personal/Political category. But as a web publisher, I do take the persecution of WikiLeaks personally, and as a U.S. citizen, I am embarrassed and appalled by the government’s hypocrisy in attempting exactly the sort of extra-judicial suppression of information-sharing that they have chastised other countries for. And as a writer, I’ve grown dependent on the Internet for information of all kinds — not only for blog posts like this, but even while writing poems. Threats to Internet freedom scare the hell out of me.

My horror at being on the wrong side of the public drumbeat against Wikileaks — a kind of isolation I haven’t felt since October 2001 and the lead-up to our bombing and invasion of Afghanistan — is combined with fascination at the manifold ways in which Cablegate illuminates the problem of TMI.

  1. The size of the leaked cache of diplomatic cables has become a sort of talisman for both sides in the emerging war. Like almost everyone, I rely on the cooperating journalists at The Guardian, The New York Times, and other cooperating newspapers to sort and analyze it, even though I realize that these filters are far from neutral. As the Wikileaks organization itself realizes, the size of an information cache presents both unique opportunities and unique challenges.
  2. The official propaganda line characterizes the information — both the few cables already released and those still pending — as too much in the specific sense that they serve a supposedly warped and dangerous vision of total transparency. This is genius because it suggests a covert connection with the immediately preceding crisis, Airport Gategate, turning the ever-potent paranoia of the more politically engaged segment of the American public, otherwise predisposed to distrust the government, against WikiLeaks and Julian Assange instead.
  3. Propaganda itself is perhaps the original TMI: blanketing the airwaves and newspapers with a few false charges (e.g. that Wikileaks did nothing to redact the names of persons who might be injured by the release, that it is a terrorist organization with blood on its hands, that Assange is a criminal mastermind and monster) can easily overwhelm and smother the truth. This is philosophically interesting because in this instance it’s actually too little that we have too much of. And information that may contain a grain of truth is exaggerated to support the propaganda, partaking in the too-muchness of hyperbole.
  4. Information differs from knowledge — a word I much prefer — in one important respect: false information is still information. The diplomatic cables at the center of the war are of course highly biased, and in many cases illuminate the extent to which high-level government employees believe their own propaganda. Volume is essential to organizational self-duplicity, as members actively work to convince each other of the lies they serve. I think something similar happens when new religions are born. The more patently absurd the “truth,” the more strident and verbose its adherents must become.
  5. According to the popular proverb, knowledge is power. A more accurate if less catchy saying might be that secrecy is a key to power. The selective withholding of information creates a privileged class of people, and more than anything, the State Department cable leaks show the extent to which this power is now routinely abused as the cognoscenti expand their ranks. This is a dilemma inherent to power itself: the more it is shared, the more it is dissipated. And eventually it is shared with someone who does not buy into the group-think: a whistleblower. Too much information was classified by too many people with too little justification.
  6. Data and information aren’t quite synonymous, but they’re pretty close. Isn’t a distributed denial-of-service attack itself a potent example of, or at least analogy for, the power of too much information flooding a given processing system in too short a time?

Update: John Miedema, whose past blogging on the subject of information overload informed my thinking here, has new post about this: World Information War I: It’s Not Being Fought on the Web.

winter tansy 1

The other morning I noticed an odd thing. In the clump of dried brown tansy stalks beside the porch, one clump of yellowish green leaves remained.

winter tansy 2

A closer look revealed a single blossom. Ordinarily, tansy blossoms are confined to the flat-topped head. They bloom in mid-July. Their leaves are so astringent, they repel almost all insects — which is why I grow them: they make a great mothball substitute. Also, I’ve used them in brewing, in lieu of hops.

But what made this one sprig’s clock go off so late? July is always when I start to notice harbingers of autumn: curly dock leaves turning purple, the first orange appearing on the black gum trees. Five months on, it seems that there are still a few forgotten corners of the natural world where the news of summer’s surrender has yet to penetrate. I am reminded a little of my partying days, how I always used to get my second wind at 4:00 in the morning when everyone else was nodding off. “Hey! C’mon! There’s still plenty of beer!”

thermometerI like to keep the thermostat turned as low as I can stand it (15.5C/60F when I’m up, 10C/50F when I’m in bed), both to save money and to minimize my carbon footprint. Sure, I can fire up the wood stove, but in this small house, that often makes the house uncomfortably hot — and then there’s the hassle of cutting, splitting and hauling wood. The best solution, of course, is to live in a passive solar house like our neighbors do, where even on an overcast winter day, their heat-exchange unit rarely kicks on. And if you own your home, you should definitely make sure it’s well-insulated to cut down on the drafts. My house, being old and hard to insulate, is uncommonly drafty, which is mainly what qualifies me to offer the following suggestions on how to survive the winter.

  1. Work up to it. If you’re used to a 70-degree house, turn the thermostat down in increments — say, one degree a day — while implementing some of the other suggestions in this list, until you’ve toughened up.
  2. Adjust your circadian rhythms. If your work schedule permits and you’re not at too far north a latitude, try to rise with the sun. Why not spend the coldest hours snug in bed?
  3. Dress in layers. I really can’t stress this one enough. Usually, I find that people who complain about the cold are simply unwilling to dress for it: sweaters, hoodies, quilted shirts, turtlenecks… there are lots of sartorial options. But yes, high fashion may have to be sacrificed. You might find yourself wearing some truly heinous footwear.
  4. Wear long johns and/or lined pants. Yes, it’s important to keep the torso warm, but don’t neglect the legs. Thermal underwear bottoms are a must as far as I’m concerned. You might have to go to a sporting goods store and look in the ski supply section to find the super-warm ones. The ordinary, thin kind can be combined with lined pants. I don’t wear the latter, but I gather that the retailer Eddie Bauer is a good place to get lined jeans, while lined chinos can be ordered from Dickies online.
  5. Wear a wool cap. If you’re perfectly warm without a hat, I’d say your thermostat is too high.
  6. Grow your hair out for the winter. Yeah, I know, the shaved-head look is cool — I’ve done it myself — but why be cold? Let it grow. Stop shaving beards and legs. Get in touch with your Paleolithic roots.
  7. Try fingerless gloves, which keep the hands warm while still enabling you to type, text, read, pick your nose, or handle a remote.
  8. If you find gloves too cumbersome, you can generate quite a lot of heat in the hands by rapidly rubbing your palms together, then cupping the hands and blowing into them. Remember, even if you’re not a writer as I am, you are still full of hot air — a valuable resource!
  9. Use an afghan. I’ve been doing this a lot lately, draping the folded afghan over my legs even while I sit at the desk. Obviously, if you have someone to cuddle with, afghans are a big plus. (More on cuddling below.)
  10. Use a laptop rather than a desktop computer, and hold it on your lap. This isn’t an option for me, but I do sometimes find myself wondering how I might take advantage of all that wasted heat going out the back of the computer on my floor. I just don’t think I can hold it safely in my lap.
  11. Drink warm beverages: coffee, tea, hot chocolate, mulled cider, maté… A thermos mug is a must-have, letting you sip a hot beverage more or less continuously throughout the day. Save the soda pop for the warmer months. And if you’re the wine-drinking sort, give hot saké a try.
  12. Cook and eat hot meals. Obviously calories in any form warm up the body — I find I rarely get cold during the first couple hours after supper — but using the stove or oven heats up the kitchen. Why let some takeout place keep all the heat?
  13. Do dishes by hand, in the sink. I know some people find this an onerous task, but if you live in a cold house, you’ll relish the opportunity to thrust your hands and wrists in hot water. (Just don’t be one of those people who runs the hot water continuously — that’s such a waste.)
  14. Be strategic about baths and showers. In Japan, people have been taking scalding hot baths right before bed for centuries. It was one of their main strategies for surviving the winter in thin-walled, uninsulated houses with paper windows. Me, I take advantage of the heat from my morning shower to bundle up and sit outside every morning while I drink my coffee.
  15. Stay in close proximity with other warm-blooded creatures. I live alone and don’t have any pets, so I am not sure if it’s quite worth hooking up with a significant other or getting a pet from the animal shelter just to stay warm. Nor am I entirely certain whether cats are, in the main, heat sources or heat sinks: a cat in the lap can help keep you warm, but a cat occupying the warmest seat is a competitor for limited heat resources. Other, more useful creatures might be preferable. I am kind of averse to keeping any animal that couldn’t be eaten in an emergency.
  16. Get up and exercise. It’s amazing how a brief walk can warm you up for hours. If the weather is inclement, consider housecleaning. They tell me some crazy people even do what are called “exercises,” but to the extent that such unproductive exertion risks burning off valuable body fat, I advise against it.
  17. Confine sex to the bed until spring. Look, I know it’s your god-given right as an American to have sex anywhere in the house at any time, but winter is a time of sacrifice.
  18. Get a down comforter for your bed. Yes, you’ll still need at least four blankets and a quilt, too, but adding a down comforter lets you turn the thermostat at least five degrees lower.
  19. Wear flannel pyjamas or long underwear to bed, plus socks and a non-itchy knit cap. That is, if you’re sleeping alone. I have a feeling that wearing a nightcap is a pretty effective way to prevent unplanned pregnancies.
  20. Try an electric blanket. I had one once, and it was O.K., but I have a friend who swears by hers — rarely leaves her bed on the weekends, I gather.

Of course, there are plenty of other options for heating that might allow you to save money on your bills: for example, if you can stay in one room with an electric space heater, and keep your thermostat just high enough that the pipes don’t freeze. The one winter I lived in Japan, we stayed warm the semi-traditional way with a small electric heater under the table, and a tablecloth-quilt that went all the way to the floor. Four or five of us could squeeze around the table at once, bumping knees as we read, did homework, and drank hot sake. Good times.

What did I miss? Please add additional suggestions in the comments for the benefit of all the frozen people coming in from Google.

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series Bestiary

 

Rhodnius prolixus

The dry season ends
with an abrupt deluge.
We run for a three-
walled hut at the edge
of a pasture, crowd in
under the tiled roof
until someone spots
the kissing bugs, vectors
of Chagas disease,
crouched in a crack
in the adobe, distinctive
patterning like a miniature
African mask with abstract
features & a net for teeth,
the real face little more
than a syringe. I come
close for a better look
& they back up slowly,
legs bent, poised
as prizefighters. And
knowing their fondness
for human blood
sucked from the thin skin
of lips & eyelids,
unwilling to find out
if they only prey
on sleepers, we decide
instead to brave the rain
& pitch camp a hundred
yards off. That night,
sleep is elusive:
a plague of frogs has just
emerged from estivation,
their temporary coffins
dissolved into mud
& primordial lust. I stand
in the darkness listening
to that thunder of need,
pulling my unfiltered
cigarette’s cherry
almost to my lips.

Boqueron, Honduras, 1995

First, watch the trailer. Real Via Negativa material, right?

I went to see the Tony Scott film Unstoppable because it was shot primarily in Western Pennsylvania, including a scene in Tyrone, two miles away. I never expected to actually enjoy an expensive Hollywood thriller about a runaway train. But from the opening freight-yard-at-dawn scene, I was hooked by the gorgeous cinematography, and the likeable characters and good writing kept my interest, too. Sure, there were cliches: the callous and stupid coporate headquarters guy, and the CEO interrupted in a game of golf to give his blessing to whatever strategy would best protect the bottom line. The Denzel Washington character might fit the magical negro stereotype, except I think that he is too central a character — more Everyman protagonist than sidekick.

But overall, I felt the movie rang true. Which is a curious reaction considering that the geography was completely fictionalized, the accents were wrong, and extrapolating from what little I know about the Tyrone shoot, the real world in which the film was shot got a complete makeover before the cameras rolled.

We obsess about authenticity in the U.S., but as Japanese Zen garden designers discovered centuries ago, making something seem natural often involves the greatest effort and artifice. It was fun knowing a little of what went into making this particular movie because of the way the action unfolds on several parallel tracks, figuratively speaking. Alert viewers from this area were rewarded with a couple glimpses of a real-life railroad chart showing the actual names of the places otherwise referred to by made-up names in the movie (itself loosely based on a true story), which led to a little bit of vertigo, and helped create the impression that we in our theater seats were on another parallel track.

This impression was bolstered by the director’s strategy of switching between the omniscient (silent) narrator’s view of the action and the live feed on TV, as watched by various ancillary characters. At one level, the movie — a 20th Century Fox production — is basically an ad for Fox, the sole news station on the scene throughout. A couple of swipes at TV news sensationalism prevent that aspect from becoming too oppressive, but still, the low-flying news helicopters capturing and broadcasting the action are key to nearly everything that happens.

Characters are also in constant communication with each other via cellphone, so despite the 19th-century mode of transportation at the center of the film, more than anything, Unstoppable is a paean to the immersive, all-pervading communications media in which nobody’s time is ever quite their own and space for reflection is increasingly squeezed out. The train (spoiler alert!) may ultimately have been stopped, but not the surrender of time and space to ever-more-immediate social and corporate media. It’s telling that the final scene is a press conference. I also gotta say, I wasn’t pleased with the blatant product-placement for the Hooters restaurant chain (which, I should explain for the benefit of international readers, is basically a gentrified titty bar). But maybe that’s an apt symbol for our electronic culture’s steady drip-feed of excitement and titillation.

Still, I would watch this movie again, if only to devote more attention to how pieces of my home region were prettified and reassembled. Of course, selective blindness and a certain idealization are intrinsic to the aesthetic act of framing. My own interest as a very amateur maker of videopoems tends to be triggered more by low-budget documentaries, but I’m also fascinated by seeing how reality can be stretched to follow the script of a big-budget star vehicle.

Then there’s the whole train thing. As regular readers know, our mountaintop property, remote as it is in terms of road access, is bordered on two sides by the main trunk line between Philly and Chicago. I’ve lived here since I was five, so I grew up listening to freight trains and waiting for them to clear our private crossing on the way home from school. Back in the 70s, when it was still Penn Central, we kids were told to stand at least 100 feet back when a train went through, in case it derailed — a not unrealistic fear. Penn Central did the bare minimum of track maintenance, trains rocked and swayed, and chaotic scheduling frequently led to our crossing being blocked by stopped freights for hours. When Conrail took over, things improved a lot, and the behemoth company that absorbed Conrail, Norfolk Southern, seems safer yet.

But Tyrone wasn’t chosen for filming because it happens to be a whistle stop on the main line; it was chosen because a single-track branch line goes right through the heart of town. From a sociological perspective, it’s been interesting to witness the intense expressions of local pride at being chosen for three minutes of cinematic fame because of something that most Tyroners had considered an inconvenience at best. As in many towns, this local rail line historically served as the line of demarcation between the richer and poorer parts of town. Landlords and homeowners with property on Railroad Avenue itself — not the most desirable real estate in the area — were thrilled at the attention and the new paint jobs. People from across the socioeconomic spectrum jostled for a chance to be an extra and appear for a split second in the movie. Knowing this, it was gratifying to see that our end of Brush Mountain got its own few seconds of glory without ever having to audition.

The Nittany and Bald Eagle Railroad was so key to the production, that had it gone the way of most other local rail lines and been abandoned when Conrail gave it up in 1983, I think Unstoppable‘s director and cinematographer would’ve had a much harder time achieving their desired visual effects. In a number of interviews, the movie’s stars have praised the bucolic charms of the area, and while of course we do have plenty of ugliness here as well — avoiding the grotesque scar of I-99 on the mountain above much of the N&BER line must’ve made the filming especially difficult — I don’t think I’m too biased in asserting that landscape plays a big role in the movie. I wasn’t the only one who found Unstoppable visually stunning. Roger Ebert wrote, “In terms of sheer craftsmanship, this is a superb film.” New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis elaborated:

Mr. Scott is partial to blunt, rapid cuts; whipping pans; and saturated colors. He likes twirling the camera around characters, like a sugared-up tot running 360s on a playground, a hyperactive visual style that can turn the screen into a blur of pulsating color. Here, working with the cinematographer Ben Seresin and some ace sound technicians, he creates an unexpectedly rich world of chugging, rushing trains slicing across equally beautiful industrial and natural landscapes.

Conflict over whether and where to derail this “missile the size of the Chrysler building” is a major driver of the plot, so they needed to contrast a beautiful yet thinly populated area with a small town (“Arklow,” shot in Tyrone) and rust-belt city (“Stanton,” shot in Bellaire, Ohio). Which area, according to the separate assessments of the “good” yardmaster and the “bad” guy from headquarters, should be turned into a sacrifice zone? Well, we who live in rural Appalachia know the answer to that one. In that respect, Unstoppable was a highly realistic film.