Life-sized model of a Mamenchisaurus, the centerpiece of the American Museum of Natural History’s new exhibition, The World’s Largest Dinosaurs.
Sauropods had little heads and big bodies and long necks and no back teeth. They ate a lot of food and laid a lot of eggs.
That’s a little dry for an opening paragraph. Let me back up.
Sauropods had long necks and big bodies and little heads and no back teeth. They ate a lot of food and laid…
Hold on. I’ll try another tack.
Sauropods had big bodies and little…
Hmm. There’s got to be a livelier way to approach this.
Sauropods were big. Really big. You won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindboggingly big they were. You may think the bull elephant in the Hall of African Mammals is big, but he’s just peanuts to Mamenchisaurus with her 30 foot neck and standing 11 feet high at the shoulder and she was a pipsqueak next to a 90 ton Argentinosaurus measuring 130 feet from blunt nose to tail tip.
Sorry. Sorry. My apologies. And apologies too to the ghost of Douglas Adams and to his literary executors. I’ll try one more time.
Sauropods had little heads and…
I said that already, didn’t I?
Did I mention they had no back teeth?
Here’s the thing. I had a lot of fun touring the new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. But the key fact about the world’s largest dinosaurs is that they were also the world’s dullest dinosaurs. Once you’ve taken in their enormity, you’ve taken in about everything there is to say about them. All those facts, the small heads, long necks, no back teeth, are starting points for talking about how big they were. How big some of them were. Some sauropods weren’t much larger than a modern cow. The exhibit focuses on the ones who were bigger, really bigger, hugely, vastly mindboggingly bigger. There isn’t much to infer about their behavior because they apparently didn’t behave in any particular way. They functioned. And they had one main function. Eating. They didn’t have time to do much else. They had to keep their giant bodies constantly refueled. They lumbered about and ate. And ate. Literally raking it in. Their front teeth, the only teeth they had, were long and thin and spiky like the tines on a rake, and they raked in grass and leaves in tremendous heaps and gulped them down without chewing. That explains the small heads. No back teeth, no need for heavy jaws with heavy muscles to work them or large skulls to anchor those muscles to. Elephants have large heads to accommodate their what exhibit co-curator Mark Norell calls their dental batteries. Their big heads have room for big brains. That’s why elephants never forget. Sauropods probably never remembered. They didn’t need to. They didn’t have to worry about where their next meal was coming from. They didn’t even have to think about how to get from here to there if they saw a patch of grass at the far end of a meadow that looked tastier than the patch they were standing on. They just stretched out their long necks and started raking it in. (The long necks were more useful for reaching out than for reaching up. Reaching up is too much work. Those Diplodocuses browsing the tree tops in Jurassic Park? Steven Spielberg indulging in a bit of poetic license.) They didn’t have to worry about how to avoid predators. They weren’t herd animals. They weren’t pack animals. Individuals took up too much space and needed even more to feed themselves so any communicating they did with one another was likely mostly about not bumping into each other. As I said, mostly they ate. An average Mamenchisaurus probably gulped down around 1,150 pounds of unmasticated herbivorous delight a day. They needed those huge bellies to act as giant fermentation tanks that took up to two weeks to digest a meal (while producing as much as 13 gallons of gas a day with aromatic results you can easily imagine). So the facts circle back on themselves and around the central fact. They were big. They could grow big because they had room to grow in and didn’t need to be fast and lithe to chase down a meal or escape from becoming somebody else’s. They had to eat a lot because they were big. They had to be big in order to eat a lot. The only fact that leads you away from contemplating how big they were is that they laid a lot of eggs.
And what’s intriguing about that fact is that it leads to thinking about dinosaurs that didn’t lay a lot of eggs.
There might be as many as 40 basketball-sized eggs in a clutch of sauropod eggs. The advantage of laying many eggs at a time is that it increases the odds that some of those eggs will hatch and that some of those hatchlings will survive and grow up to lay their own eggs. This means a sauropod mother didn’t have to worry too much about the survival of any one individual baby and that means that she probably didn’t worry about any of them. Good parenting was not likely a part of a sauropod’s limited skill set.
Fresh out of the shell, a Titanosaur hatchling weighed in at about eight pounds and was about the size of a modern adult goose, a snack-sized morsel for a T-rex. The hatchling set to work quickly growing too big to swallow in a bite, which meant it set to work eating, something herbivores can figure out how to do on their own with no parental guidance or aid. A Memenchiasaurus hatchling would have doubled its birth weight in five days, quadrupled it in twelve. By the time it was 30 years old it would have weighed 10,000 times what it did when it shrugged its way out of its egg. Some species of sauropods put on 3500 pounds a year during adolescence. But the key point here is that a young sauropod would have been on its own from the start. And we now know that this wasn’t true of other types of dinosaurs.
Upstairs in his lab in the Paleontology Department, the museum’s Provost of Science and Curator of Fossil Mammals, Michael Novacek, spoke to some of us media types about the expedition he’s leading this summer to Mongolia. He’s going back to an area in the Gobi Desert called the Flaming Cliffs where he and his teams have been digging and studying for almost twenty years, producing find after find. The Flaming Cliffs are a fossil hunter’s treasure trove and among the fossils turned up have not just been dinosaur eggs, many, many dinosaur eggs, but nests, and not just nests, but one nest that included a dinosaur mother sitting on that nest. How a dinosaur could have been fossilized in mid-brood is the subject of another post. The point is that this dinosaur mother, an Oviraptor, was doing something sauropod mothers probably didn’t do, taking care of her young.
And a couple weeks ago, in my review of Boneheads, Richard Polsky’s memoir about his return to the career path he’d abandoned in college to go into art, paleontology, I mentioned a fossil hunter named Bob Detrich who styles himself The Fossil King. The title’s meant as a two-word summary of resume and a promise that he’s good at what he does, but it’s also a statement of ambition. Detrich’s goal is to make himself the undisputed fossil king by finding what no one else has found so far, a T. rex egg.
Not just an egg. Detrich’s after the nest as well.
The fact that no one’s yet found a nest or an egg suggests that T. rexes didn’t lay many eggs. T.rexes and Oviraptors were theropods, three-toed, bipedal, meat-eaters, and probably like modern theropods---birds---they were careful about where they built their nests and then took care of the few eggs that were in them. And like birds and carnivorous mammals, they’d have had to feed their young. Fewer eggs, fewer hatchlings, fewer individuals surviving into adulthood. Theropod parents had to be parents. They’d have had to take care of their nests, take care of their young, take care to teach them how to fend for themselves. That taking care represents a huge leap in behavior over sauropods. That’s the intriguing thing. They would have had to behave, not simply function, and there are all kinds of questions to be asked and investigated in trying to figure out just what their behavior was like.
It’s not as if there are no questions left to answer about sauropods. It’s just that the questions don’t open up speculation that is quite as dramatic or sympathetic. Theropods probably behaved more like modern mammals which means they behaved more like us. Theropods are interesting because of what they might have been like. Sauropods are impressive because they were…big.
The World’s Largest Dinosaurs is, as I said, a fun exhibit. It’s a pretty exhibit too, dimly but pleasantly lit with dappled shadows as if you’re in the understory of one of the giant rain forests where the sauropods roamed. And it’s well and thoughtfully laid out so that visitors are taken not just from bare, dry fact to bare, dry fact but to question to question. How big were they? How did they get that big? How did animals that big function? All the while you’re being led in a slow circle around a life-sized model of a rather vibrantly and somewhat disturbingly pink Mamenchisaurus. But, again, as I said, pretty much everything there is to say about sauropods is simply a different way of saying the same thing: Sauropods were big, really big. This sounds a little harsh, but if you’re not leading a grade school class field trip, the exhibit isn’t worth a special visit to the museum. It is worth visiting if you’re already going to the museum. And of course the museum itself is always worth a special trip to the City.
The World’s Largest Dinosaurs opened April 16, 2011 and will continue through January 2, 2012 at the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street, New York, NY. Tickets available to buy online or call 212.769.5100.
Photos provided by AMNH.
Related Mannion re-run: Another trip to the museum. Endless forms most beautiful.
I’m hoping to post my report (Finally!) from my visit to the World’s Largest Dinosaurs exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History before the weekend's out. My review of the Classic Stage Company’s production of The School for Lies will have to wait until I’ve actually seen the play.
Which I’m going to do. Sunday. It’s back to New York for me and my notebook and penlight. As I’ve said, I’m trying to make theater reviews a regular feature here, but New York is actually a bit of a haul, which means setting aside money for train tickets or for gas, parking, and tolls the times I have to drive down, like this weekend. So, if you can swing it and would like to help send a critic to camp, a small donation would be much appreciated.
Meanwhile, coming up, for your viewing pleasure, a video of the costume designer for The School for Lies, Tony Award winner William Ivey Long, describing how he developed his design concepts for this production. The School for Lies is David Ives’ new translation/revision/adaptation of Moliere’s The Misanthrope. I was a little surprised to see CSC’s doing it in period dress, although, why not? The reason I was surprised is that way back when I saw an excellent college production of The Misanthrope that was set in present-day Hollywood and redefined the play for me as a contemporary comedy!
It was very clever how they pulled it off. It was almost wholly done through the power of suggestion. The characters were dressed in California casual. The set suggested that the house was architecturally a beachfront mansion, although I can’t remember if the view out the large windows that made up most of the back wall was actually of the ocean at night or if that was implied by the lighting. There was a smattering of contemporary music, mostly heard in snatches as the door to the room where a party was in progress opened and closed. But otherwise it was played just as Moliere wrote it. Having read it before I went to see it and then gone back to give it a quick re-read it afterwards, I don’t think they changed a line. The program said the setting was Celimene’s house in Los Angeles and that’s all it took. That’s all it ever takes. Which is how Shakespeare was able to give Bohemia a sea coast.
By the way, if you’re ever in an argument over whether or not Shakespeare wrote his own plays with someone who insists he couldn’t have because the plays contain details of places only a sophisticated and rich world traveler and not some middle-class country bumpkin with a grade-school education could have known, ask the snob why Shakespeare’s Venice doesn’t have any canals and how characters wind up shipwrecked in a landlocked country.
Anyway, here’s the video. I’m convinced William Ivey Long is an actual leprechaun.
One question. Why wouldn’t we be able to say Dior?
In no way do I mean to pick on Maurice Sendak here. It’s what’s being said, not who’s saying it that’s weighing on my mind. I think that what I’m about to quote him as saying could be said and has been said by many eighty year olds contemplating their impending mortality. Many forty year olds too.
I think I'm getting out just in time. Watching the news, everything seems to be in disorder. Everybody seems to be unhappy. We've lost the knack of living in the world with the sensation of safety.
Pick a year, one year out of your whole life, when that wasn’t a reasonable way to look at the world on your way out of it. I can’t think of one. My guess is that if you have, you’re probably no more than twenty-five and all your choice really tells us is that you’re no more than twenty-five.
I wonder how many people on their deathbed after a long life have looked at what they’re about to leave behind and thought, “Damn, just as it was about to get interesting…”
Benjamin Franklin, maybe.
I think one of the first signs that you’re getting old is that you start losing the ability to see life as having order and promising happiness. Some people lose this ability sooner than others, which means that some people get old in their thirties and some people get old when they’re teenagers and children and some people are just born old. Getting past childhood with that ability means that you were born lucky. It means that you were lucky to be born into a place and a time where starvation, disease, and violence weren’t the cultural weather. It means that there’s a good chance you were born an American.
Wherever you were born, it also probably means you were lucky to find yourself in the company of people who were glad to see you and cared deeply that you’d arrived and did their best to make the world around you seem ordered and full of the potential for happiness.
When you’re young, life looks like it has order and the promise of happiness, mainly because life seems to be all about you and you have the energy and optimism to create order and find things to be happy about as you move forward towards a future you who, you are sure, will be even happier in a world that’s been ordered (by you) around you and your happiness.
Happiness, by the way, is just a hopeful euphemism for not miserable.
Life, though, starts getting less and less happy after you’re forty. Partly it’s due to your body starting to wear down and with it your spirit. It’s hard to be an optimist when your joints ache. Mainly, though, it’s due to people who helped make life happy for you starting to disappear at an alarming rate.
What I think---ok, what I hope for myself---is that some people get lucky a second time. They develop a degree of detachment, from themselves and from life, that allows them not to take it all so personally.
Along with that bit of luck might come another bit of luck, the strength and the energy and the ability to make life seem ordered and full of the potential for happiness for others.
If you get down to the end and you can still do that, then maybe that’s what will have you saying, “Damn, just when it was starting to get interesting…”
I hope Sendak was just in a bad mood because he wasn’t feeling well and that he can look around and console himself with the thought, Well, even if I’ve lost the ability to make life seem ordered and full of the potential for happiness, I once had it and I’m leaving behind what I did with that ability.
Recently a mural Sendak painted in 1961 on a Manhattan apartment wall was cut out (1,400-pound wall and all), transported to Philadelphia, and restored. He says he is very sorry he couldn't get to Philadelphia this month to see it unveiled in its new home, the Rosenbach Museum and Library on Delancey Street, where his papers, original art, and ephemera are collected. He had wanted to renew his acquaintance with Rosalyn and Lionel Chertoff's children, for whom he painted it as they "ran in and out of the room."
Sadly, darker thoughts seems to be weighing on his mind, as you can see in this story by Amy S. Rosenberg in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In this 2005 interview with NPR, Sendak says his favorite subject is “scaring children.”
Slate sports blogger and Baltimore Orioles fan Tom Scocca:
Being a sports fan, and a baseball fan in particular, means you are emotionally invested in a certain aspect of the lives and successes of people who have been rewarded, with tremendous amounts of money and fame, for doing (and being) what they did (and were) as 14-year-olds.
This does not always produce the most all-around appealing people.
The all-around unappealing person Scocca’s talking about is Oriole outfielder, slugger, birther, gun nut, and not the most enlightened guy on the subject of race, Luke Scott. Scocca can’t understand why ESPN did a puff piece on this “standard-issue ignoramus” in which reporter Amy K. Nelson appears to find Scott one of those quirky characters who' have made baseball so much fun to follow over its history, as if Birthirism, casual racism, and an appalling recklessness with firearms were endearing eccentricities like Rube Waddell’s habit of leaving the field in the middle of a game to chase fire trucks.
Makes you wonder what she’d have made of Ty Cobb.
Read the whole of Scocca’s post, I Know Why I Cheer for a Birther Moron, But Why Does ESPN Cheer for Him?
Working my way deeper into Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, which I was hoping to review just for the chance to say mean things about Tea Party Types and other varieties of blockheaded Right Wingers, as if I need an excuse. It’s turning out that The Believing Brain is about…hold on…the brain. Even though Shermer’s a psychologist, there’s more biology than psychology so far and I’m bogging down in a chapter devoted to examining not what dumb things people believe but how we believe.
I’m learning all kinds of stuff about belief as a process of brain function.
Ask me about mirror neurons. Go ahead. Ask me.
When it comes to sorting out what’s going on in our heads, most people are what Shermer calls dualists. We think of there being two things at work inside our skulls, our brains and our minds. Even when we understand that what we call our mind is another word for our brain doing its biological job, we still think of mind and brain as separate. We think of ourselves as our minds and think of our minds as thinking with or through our brains. We think---feel, believe, hope---that our mind has an existence of its own apart from the brain and that it can and will survive when the brain ceases to function. Mind is also another word for our immortal soul.
Shermer is a monist. Monists know that there is only brain up in our noggins. Know being a qualified term, as in all the scientific evidence we have points to “mind” being simply a function of brain and, as there is no evidence that “mind” exists apart from brain and no evidence that it even needs to for us to “think”, it’s as certain as anything can be in this life that there is no immortal, ineffable “I” inside. No mind, no soul, only brain.
Our bodies are made of proteins, coded by our DNA, so with the disintegration of DNA our protein patterns are lost forever. Our memories and personality are stored in the patterns of neurons firing in our brains and the synaptic connections between them, so when those neurons die and those synaptic connections are broken, it spells the death of our memories and personality. The effect is similar to the ravages of stroke, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease, but absolute and final. No brain, no mind; no body, no soul. Until a technology is developed to download our patterns into a more durable medium than the electric meat of our carbon-based protein, the scientific evidence tells us that when we die our pattern of information---our soul---dies with us.
For monists, statements like I think, I wonder, I feel, I conclude, I believe, I hope are metaphors for electro-chemical fireworks lighting up neurons in the brain, with the subject being even more of a fiction than the predicate.
This is important to Shermer’s overall thesis for his book: Belief comes first, reasoning from evidence comes afterwards and usually the evidence is selected to support the belief. We are biologically hardwired to believe, Shermer says. Not in anything particular, in anything. Being willing to believe before there’s evidence of there being something real to believe in is a useful survival skill. An early hominid walking through the tall grass of the savannahs where our species evolved, hearing a rustle in the grass behind him, had two options: to believe the rustle was caused by a predator or to wait for solid evidence that it was. The hominid who believed ran for its life. The hominid who waited for the evidence discovered it on its way down the predator’s throat. Neither hominid paid a price for the rustle turning out to be just the wind in the grass. So hominids that believed could pass along their genetic tendency to believe as well as the more skeptical hominids, but given how many things rustling the grass liked to hunt hominids, hominids being little, weak, and slow as well as tasty, the believers had a better chance of surviving if it wasn’t the wind.
This reminds me of Rincewind’s faith in the efficacy of panic:
What Shermer is saying is that it was a good idea to run from the saber-toothed tiger even if it hadn’t been proved to you yet that there was a saber-toothed tiger to run from.
"What shall we do?" said Twoflower.
"Panic?" said Rincewind hopefully. He had always held that panic was the best means of survival; back in the olden days, his theory went, people faced with hungry saber-toothed tigers could be divided very simply into those who panicked and those who stood there saying "What a magnificent brute!" and "Here, pussy."
Basically, the evolutionary pressure was towards being easily spooked. Hominids who believed in things unseen, in things for which there was no conclusive evidence of their actual presence, stood a better chance of surviving. We evolved because we believe in ghosts, metaphorically speaking, although it’s also literally true.
Since the how is indistinguishable for the why here, in order to follow Shermer’s argument it’s necessary that we accept that there is no such thing as mind, no such thing as a soul, that there is only brain.
Once we understand that the statement I believe should be written “I” “believe” because there is no “I” and no “believing,” there is only brain at work and that the brain is programmed to “believe” anything without evidence and take it personally, it should follow that the proper point of view to be skeptical of of whatever an “I” “believes” is going on in his head.
That’s the science. But there’s a moral aspect to this too. Shermer isn’t pushing it hard, so far, but I suspect he’s going to get more into it.
Is scientific monism in conflict with religious dualism? Yes, it is. Either the soul survives death or it does not, and there is no scientific evidence that it does or ever will. Does science and skepticism extirpate all meaning in life? I think not; quite the opposite, in fact. If this is all there is, then how meaningful become our lives, our families, our friends, our communities---and how we treat others---when every day, every moment, every relationship counts, not as props in a temporary staging before an eternal tomorrow where ultimate purose will be revealed to us but as vauled essences in the here and now where we create provisional purpose.
Awareness of this reality elevates us all to a higher plane of humanity and humility, as we course through life together in this limited time and space---a momentary proscenium in the drama of the cosmos.
How much of religion is predicated upon taking care of the soul as if it’s something that exists apart from the body and its needs are not just different from the body’s but almost opposed to them, as if the soul must be cared for and maintained at the expense of the body?
Self-indulgence is bodily indulgence and it’s not the extreme opposite of self-denial, saith the preachers, it’s what happens automatically absent self-denial. It’s the default state. Taken to its logical next step, where most religions take it, physical contentment and comforts are sins.
A consoling thought if physical contentment and comfort seem impossibly out of reach in this world.
I have a vague memory, though, of it occurring to me that because those things weren’t out of reach for me and my family they maybe shouldn’t be be out of reach for anybody. I was in first grade and I think the conversation went something like this:
Sister, what about all those children starving in Africa? Why does God let that happen?
They’ll have their reward in heaven. Now sit down,Mister Mannion, and work on you math.
But that nun was mean and probably crazy. Since this was a Catholic school, the idea that all the afflicted on earth will find comfort in heaven didn’t mean that we weren’t obligated to do some comforting ourselves, and out came the Lenten rice bowls and the little milk cartons for trick or treating for UNICEF.
But still those starving children needed the consolation while they waited for our pennies and nickels to arrive in the form of food and medicine, which given the political corruption and the sheer number of people who needed them, few probably ever did.
We’ll all get our reward in heaven is a consoling thought, but it’s also a bamboozling one politicians can use to manipulate the discontented and uncomfortable into accepting political and economic “realities” that happen to make the already overly contented and comfortable even more contented and comfortable.
Senator, Governor, Mr President, what about high gas prices, and the fact my brother can’t find a job, and my house is worth half of what I paid for it and I can’t get the home equity loan I need to pay for my kid’s college tuition, and…
We admire the way you virtuous middle class and working class families have been tightening your belts and sharing the sacrifice in these hard times for all of us. Keep your chins up, the market will provide.
Stop whining, suck it up, deal with it, you don’t want people to think you’re like them, do you? Those others? Those losers? The ones over there? The ones who aren’t like you? You aren’t like them, are you? Are you?
Authoritarians in all walks of life can make use of it too.
Father (or Reverend), my husband gets drunk every night and beats me, what should I do?
Offer your suffering up to God, my child. He sees all and will reward you in heaven. Meanwhile, do your duty here on earth.
And that’s hardly been the worst of it.
But you don’t need to drag God into it or posit a heavenly afterlife. You can make people believe that a future fantasy earth is more real and more important than what’s going on in the here and now. Lotteries depend on this. The godless Randian Utopia promised by the corporatists running the Republican party is based on the premise that in the future, if we treat each other horribly now, we will all be rich or at least those of us who matter will be rich.
And Tea Party types have bought into this more credulously, more completely, and more stubbornly than children buy into the notion of the tooth fairy.
Like I said, I don’t need an excuse to pick on them, but I’m glad to have one.
Put up with it now because you will be rewarded in heaven is useful to those who are putting up with being obscenely well-off here on earth thanks to everyone else putting up with being obscenely not well-off.
Shermer doesn’t need to sweat to win me over to monism. Even when I was a believer and a committed dualist, I was something of a materialist. I accepted that the inside of our heads is jam-packed with mind and brain but that not only did mind work through brain, it could only work through brain. Without a brain mind just wafted, formless and practically void. I didn’t worry about it much, but occasionally I did try to puzzle out what happened to mind when it had no brain to ground it, shape it, give it personality by attaching it to a body. We—all the various I’s of the world---are minds embodied. No body, no mind, no I. It wasn’t much of a leap for me to decide that the answer is that the mind goes nowhere without a brain to work through or, really, to work at all.
But Shermer has got me wondering about what happened when I stopped believing. I don’t recall going through any mental obstacle course. One day, one minute, one second, I believed, the next I didn’t. For a long time I thought of what had happened as the equivalent of someone knocking my glasses off my face and sending them flying across the room with the weird thing happening that instead of becoming suddenly blind I found I could still see without them and I didn’t feel it was worth the trouble to go look for them and put them back on.
Now I wonder if something misfired or rewired itself inside my brain. And here’s the thing for non-believers, a warning to us to be more humble in our disbelief.
Human beings are naturally dualists, Shermer says, including himself, and we are born inclined to believe…any thing. That would include believing in not believing. A believer believes first and then looks around for evidence that backs up that belief and, lo and behold, the evidence is everywhere. A non-believer is just as ready to believe first and look for proof later and it shouldn’t be surprising that the proof is everywhere. We need to keep that in “mind.” We also need to keep in mind that science doesn’t just show that brains are wired to believe. It shows that some brains are wired to believe more and more intensely. The corollary is obvious. Some brains are wired to believe less.
The neurons in a believing brain may be in overdrive. But it may be that what happened in my brain is that they short-circuited.
Doesn’t seem to much matter. I can go along with Shermer, no matter how I got to this point. There is no mind, only brain.
I have a harder time with the next step. That there is no I.
Shermer doesn’t insist on it, in fact he can’t write about it as if he believes it himself, but he does make the point that I have heard made more forcefully (and cold-bloodedly) elsewhere, that what we call "I” is an illusion caused by our bicameral brain giving itself electrochemical feedback. The ghost in the machine is an echo that “hears” itself, a reflection that “sees” itself.
This seems needlessly reductive for a layman. It’s hard not to believe in the evidence of your senses. We sense ourselves within us. We feel our minds at work. More to the point, our minds feel our bodies at work answering commands from the mind or, often, to our minds’ horror, frustration, and dismay, not answering.
But there is an I, a me, a myself. If it’s not the ghost in the machine, it is the machine. I am my physical presence in this world. To talk or try to “think” as if there is no I, no subject to those predicates, only a brain at work is to try to think of eating as simply a series of processes carried out by parts of the body acting in sequence. Body needs nourishment. Hand reaches for the apple, teeth bite it and chew it, tongue tastes and pushes it down throat, stomach receives and starts to digest it.
I eat an apple because I am hungry and I like apples. I, me, myself.
Soul, mind, brain, body, all words that are names for me.The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truthsby Michael Shermer won’t hit the bookstore shelves until May 24, but you can pre-order in now from Amazon. If you can believe it, though, it appears you can buy the kindle edition now. Personally, I’m skeptical of that.
Appears that over the last 50 years there’ve only been 10 Major League pitchers 5 foot 7 and shorter. In the whole history of baseball only two pitchers that short have won a hundred games or more (but not much more).
You can probably think of a number of reasons why that’s been the case, why in fact pitchers have tended to run taller than most players at every other position except first base, and those reasons are probably sound, although they can’t be proven. Makes sense, longer arms, longer legs, longer backs, somehow it all adds up to faster pitches. Except few pitchers get by exclusively on fast balls. And there’s no height advantage among the taller pitchers. Could 6 foot 10 inch Randy Johnson throw that much harder than 6 foot even Bob Feller? Johnson’s advantage when he came up was that he could be wild.
Mariano Rivera, who I’m beginning to think is the best pitcher ever, or at least in my lifetime, and I say that as someone who grew up idolizing Tom Seaver (6’1”) and Bob Gibson (6’1”), is 6 foot 2, same height as Sandy Koufax.
I think one reason might simply be that most short men were short kids and way back when they were kids choosing up sides the biggest, strongest kids took the mound because they could throw the hardest and the short kids wound up at shortstop or second base, unless they were unusually fast and played the outfield or not particularly good and were told to “play deep.” Over the years, the talented short kids developed their skills at the positions they were always relegated to and by the time they reached a level of play where they were going to get noticed by scouts, no scouts watched them play the infield and said, You know, that little guy’s got an arm, let’s make him a pitcher. They said, that kid at short’s got an arm, and we need a shortstop.
Anyway, if anyone said that about Kansas City Royals reliever Tim Collins, he didn’t listen.
On the bus with Kent Koch, the mayor of Loretto, Minnesota, population 700 or so:
Since January, when Koch was sworn in as mayor, Loretto residents with a gripe have had to call his apartment next to St. Cloud State, a university of 18,000 students. Or they could stop him during one of his frequent visits to Loretto, where the Koch family home is a short relay throw from city hall.
In recent weeks, they reached him in Arkansas, Indiana or South Dakota, where the Huskies — currently ranked second in the N.C.A.A. Division II Central Region poll — had games.
“He does a lot of city business on bus rides,” said Koch’s roommate, Ryne Schwenke, a senior pitcher. “We’re sleeping and he’s talking to his public works director or the police chief.”
Lately, when a phone rings on the bus, some teammates have begun calling out, “Hello, mayor’s office.”
His honor is 23, still in college at St. Cloud State University. He’s also the second baseman for the university’s baseball team. They’re 26 and 6 so far this season. Koch is batting .282, with 5 doubles, 1 home run and 17 RBI. Story doesn’t give his GPA. I’m guessing he’s no slacker in the classroom, but I can’t imagine how he finds time to study.
Here’s the link to Bill Pennington’s whole story at the New York Times.
Photo by Ben Garvin.
Please let me know if you had to go through the pay wall to read this.
Photo by Josh Haner, the New York Times.
Assuming the people who would know aren’t lying, dreaming, engaging in wishful thinking, or kidding themselves, this is a story about a bowling alley that is not closing.
Not right now, at any rate. Someday it will. For a while, though, it’s bowling as usual at Maple Lanes in Brooklyn.
An application to rezone the property was first submitted three years ago. Preliminary plans were last updated in August for the 72,000-square-foot site, which is set to hold brick apartment complexes and a synagogue. According to the Department of City Planning, the redevelopment is not imminent, but it seems inevitable in a developing neighborhood in desperate need of housing.
There was another alley, Leemark Lanes, place where a lot of Maple regulars used to bowl, that one closed and was torn down to make way for a parking lot…four years ago.
Mr. Lambert, the Parking Lot league president, has signed a contract for next year’s season, from September to June 2012. He bristles when recalling how bowlers went to a community meeting to fight to keep Leemark Lanes open.
“The representative from Century said, ‘They didn’t tell you? They sold their lease for $1 million,’ ” Mr. Lambert recalled. “It was like we had egg on our face.”
I guess it’s sort of newsworthy that Maple Lanes is still open, considering all the alleys that have seen their last frames bowled there, fifteen have closed, although the story doesn’t say over the course of how many years.
What strikes me---yeah. Strike. Bowling. Ha ha. Good one, Lance. The pun in the post title’s terrible too.---is not only has Maple Lanes been spared---Come on, you knew that one was coming.---it’s busy. The news to me, good news, is that there are enough people bowling that an alley can still make money. Waning interest in the sport isn’t what’s threatening Maple Lanes, apparently, it’s gentrification and competition!
Beyond this familiar pattern of Brooklyn’s progress lies a truth about the state of bowling in the area: boutique alleys with bars and bands in popular locations are popping up, and the less flashy centers that feel like suburban oases are being phased out.
What’s more, six high schools in the area have bowling teams and play at Maple Lanes.
I hope no one tells Mayor Bloomberg.
To me, then, this is a human interest feature and the “news” is that lots of people still like to bowl. People of all ages, like the twenty-eight year old coach of one of the high school teams, and a pair of twenty-something brothers who repair bowling machines for a living, and:
Adam Archone, 85, who bowls with the Veterans Affairs Hospital league and started a senior league, could not bear to think of the center’s closing. “Lord, I’m here four days a week,” he said before bowling two strikes in the 10th frame. “I’m part of the woodwork.”
Sylvia Arena, 78, [who] learned how to bowl at Maple Lanes 35 years ago. She will never forget her 300 game on Lanes 5 and 6 in 1997. “Twelve perfect strikes,” she said, beaming.
Ms. Arena, a wisp of a woman with wiry arms that can still throw a 16-pound ball, is charmingly fierce, the captain of her team. She refuses to consider that Maple Lanes might close.
“I’m going to bowl till I drop,” she said.
So what about you? You bowl?
Read all of Liz Robbins’ story, Bowlers in Brooklyn Enjoy a Haven While It’s Still Around, in the New York Times, and put your own spin on it.
Editor’s note: I’m confused about how the Times’ pay wall is working. I’m a subscriber so I don’t have to worry about it, but I didn’t have to sign in to read this story. Please let me know how you fared.
Nothing for kings, nothing for crowns! Bring on the lovers, liars, and clowns!
Read this this morning in Alessandra Stanley’s review in the New York Times of Cinema Verite, an HBO movie about the making of An American Family, the 1973 PBS documentary that changed television forever or, you know, not.
Documentary storytelling was the Trojan horse in the age of hyper-self-consciousness, in which privacy is as antiquated as gaslight and people are the curators of their own lives on Facebook, Twitter and all those other forms of aggrandizing self-expression.
Ok, I don’t know about you, but I use Twitter and Facebook for shameless self-promotion. I’m trying to lure people into reading my blog, where I do my aggrandizing self-expressing.
It doesn’t work the way I want it to. In fact, it tends to work the other way. Most of my Facebook friends are longtime readers of the blog. Or were. Now a lot of them never leave Facebook to come read my posts. Oh well, never mind me, I’m just self-expressing aggrandizingly again. The real point is, what is going on in Stanley’s Facebook and Twitter feeds that caused that Puritanical harrumph?
Probably not much. Likely the paragraph’s nothing more than a former A-student’s reflex---Students, make sure everything you put in your essay supports your thesis. An American Family aired just shy of 40 years ago. Not exactly a fresh topic. But here’s this HBO movie starring Tim Robbins, Diane Lane, and James Gandolfini. There must be a reason to watch the movie besides the fact that it stars Tim Robbins, Diane Lane, and James Gandolfini. It must have currency! How about this? An American Family was the beginning of the end of all that was good and decent in the American character? Something like that anyway. Once upon a time we knew to keep our dull, boring, sordid, mean little lives to ourselves. Now we force Alessandra Stanley to look at pictures of our cats.
Warning to cat lovers. Cats are going to be a metaphor for the rest of this post.
Some people do tend to overshare. But that’s as true out in the analog world as it is here in Virtualland. The difference between a Facebook friend who thinks you can’t look at enough pictures of their cats and the person ahead of you in the line at the grocery store who thinks the cashier needs to hear their long story about the funny thing their cat did the other day is that you can skim over the Facebook friend’s status update without hurting their feelings. Anyway, I’d rather look at more pictures of your cat than have to watch yet another YouTube video of his favorite rock band from the 70s performing his favorite song from his freshman year when everybody else was listening to that other band but he and his friends knew what was really hip and happening.
My main gripe with Facebook and Twitter is they’re time-sinks. I enjoy looking at pictures of your cat. And your cat. And your cat, and your cat, and your cat, and yours, and yours, and yours, and…
You get the point. I’m sure you have the same problem. By the time you’re done looking at pictures of my cats, and his, and hers, and theirs, and etc., an hour’s gone by and there are still more cat pictures showing up in your feed.
Another pitfall of social networks is that they can become an alternative to actually socializing. All that time wasted staring at the computer screen could have been spent talking to live human beings.
My niece, Violet Mannion, who is finishing up her freshman year in college in Boston, was a Facebook virtuoso. She knew just what to post and when to make her feed a happy mix of news, games, fun, and information, managing to keep the aggrandizing at a minimum while making the self-expression charming, lively, and always entertaining. But she deactivated her account in January. It was bothering her that Facebook was becoming the venue for interaction with college life. Here she and her friends were, students in the greatest college town in America, and instead of meeting up nights to discuss their days and their classes over coffee or pizza in one of the thousand quirky dives and joints Boston offers, they were all retreating to their separate dorm rooms to type into the ether. She declared that she’d had all she could stand.
Gosh darnit, she said---Violet shares the Mannion family inability to curse persuasively---If we’re going to make each other look at pictures of our cats, then we’re going to do it by handing each other actual prints, or at least our cell phones, back and forth across real wooden tables damp with bar sweat and sticky with half-dried tomato sauce and the spilled foam from our lattes and we’re going to have to yell over the music from a real live band that we’re all listening to together while we do it instead of while each of us is half-distracted by whatever is shuffling through the headphones on our iPods!
I didn’t watch An American Family and I can’t say I’ve been aware of its influence on television or life in these United States. I can’t connect the dots between it and Facebook. I’m not sure Stanley can either. It’s not really her job to in her review. So, like I said, I’m not sure that paragraph isn’t just a throwaway, like her references to Modern Family and Parks and Recreation, neither of which needs for An American Family to have existed to be what they are, unless Ricky Gervais could only have created The Office because when he was twelve he accidentally caught one episode and had been mulling it over ever since.
But I can’t help suspecting that Stanley means it, at least she means the indictments of Facebook and Twitter as blots on the national character.
Stanley has a Facebook page, but she maintains it with less of the assiduity of a Sarah Palin. And she’s on Twitter, at least somebody named Alessandra Stanley claiming to work for the New York Times is on Twitter, but if it is her, she hasn’t posted a single Tweet. For all I know she’s using aliases and twittering and Facebooking like a madwoman, but unless that’s the case it looks like she hasn’t found much use for either. Maybe she’s resisting the temptation to self-express aggrandizingly. Maybe she’s just too busy expressing herself professionally in the New York Times.
The reason I think she hates Twitter and Facebook, though, is that a lot of people do.
Mainstream media types, especially, seem to have a grudge against social networking. It seems like a continuation of the grudge they had against blogs. Stanley could have written that same paragraph on the night Mark Zuckerberg was inventing Facebook, substituting blogs for Twitter and Facebook but putting the same sneering spin on the word, and her colleagues would have nodded aggressively in agreement. Lots of keyboards have been pounded without mercy as the sages and savants of the intertubes have tried to figure out the source of this animosity, with the consensus being that the olde media types are both afraid of the new media taking away their jobs and jealously protective of their own status and privileges---How dare you members of the great unwashed have opinions about the opinions we’ve decided you should hold!
But I’m not accusing Stanley of sharing either that fear or that arrogance. I’m just saying that I think for one reason or another Facebook and Twitter appall and disgust her or at least make her mildly annoyed and a lot of people who aren’t mainstream media types feel the same way.
I used the word Puritanical to describe her tone. You should know that I don’t think of the word as necessarily a pejorative.
Lots of liberals reflexively use the word Puritan to describe social and religious conservatives. But they are thinking of the humorless, hypocritical, intolerant authoritarians who inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne and not the self-improving, self-questioning, self-doubting intellectuals who inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson. There’s a strong Puritanical streak in contemporary liberalism. Forms of witch-hunting and handing out scarlet A’s are popular American traditions handed down to us by the Puritans, but so are public schools.
American liberals are relentless self-improvers. This has its good side as well as its bad, and that bad side is that it can make us judgmental and intolerant in our own way. My review of T.C. Boyle’s new novel, When the Killing’s Done, was long enough without my getting into it, but both its main characters are liberals with strong Puritanical bents. Alma Takesue and Dave LaJoy are driven self-improvers who can’t resist the temptation to improve others in the same ways they’ve improved themselves.
You can see how a contemporary Puritan---like me. I’m one, I confess.---would be wary of Twitter and Facebook. What’s the benefit here, we ask ourselves, meaning, In what way will this make me a better person? How is Twittering and Facebooking self-improving as opposed to self-indulging? It might be ok if I’m using social networking to be social, if I’m using it to connect with people, to share information (of the self-improving, non-self-indulging kind), to learn about what other people are thinking and doing and what’s going on in the world outside my own garden and get ideas on how I can help make it a better place. But what if all I’m doing is using it to show off? What if I’m just aggrandizing myself by showing off? (Puritans can make a big show of showing off their virtue, but they can also make a show of not showing off their virtues. They show off by not showing off.) What if I’m not using social networking to be social at all? What if what I’m doing is closing myself off from the world by spending all my time alone at my computer screen reading things that confirm my smug self-satisfied opinions typed by strangers I’ve decided to befriend or follow just because they happen to think like I do and believe the same things I do and like the same movies I do and vote for the same liberal politicians I do. Aren’t I limiting myself? Aren’t I being a hypocrite? Aren’t I wasting time I could and should be devoting to doing something productive? (Puritans are very bad at loafing.)
Where we Puritans get into trouble, and start causing trouble, is when we decide it’s not enough for us to refrain from something, you need to refrain from it too.
When we’re not content to say, You know, I think I’d better cut back for my own good but have to add, and you should too because it’s contributing to the decline and fall of civilization.
And we can get worse. We start to believe that anybody who doesn’t agree is a deliberate agent of that decline and fall.
Oh, I don’t own a television set.
Oh, I don’t let my children eat at McDonald’s.
Oh, I don’t follow sports.
Oh, I don’t have a Facebook account.
Implicit in all those statements is the question, And what is wrong with you that you do?
I’m pretty cool with Facebook. Twitter is my downfall. Like I said, where I get into trouble with both Facebook and Twitter is when I lose track of time. But with Twitter I have another problem or, as a good Puritan I should say, I face another temptation. Anger. Twitter makes me mad. Well, not Twitter itself. It’s the fact that almost all the people I follow are liberals obsessed with politics and I wind up spending an hour I should be devoting to self-improvement growing angrier and angrier as I read tweet after tweet and follow link after link that tell me what I already know, the world is in terrible shape and it’s all their fault. They being politicians and conservatives and any liberals who don’t agree with me about how it’s their fault or what to do about it.
It wouldn’t help if I started following some conservatives because I would still be following people who are as obsessed with politics and also believe it’s all their fault.
And on Twitter I fall into the habit---give into the temptation---of tweeting in kind, of obsessing over politics and passing along links to my followers that will reassure them that they’re right, and I’m right, it’s all their fault.
Twitter is not, for me, a social network. On Twitter I am the opposite of social. I’m anti-social.
If that’s the case, Lance, you may ask, Why do you have that Follow Me on Twitter widget in your sidebar? Why do you routinely put links to your Twitter feed in your posts here on the blog?
Mainly because I can’t resist self-expressing aggrandizingly.
But also because I do try to make use of Twitter for good Puritanical reasons, to be informative and to take part in social networking, which is to say, to be sociable.
The fault isn’t with Twitter. It’s what I do with it. Posting my notes from my visit to the American Museum of Natural History last week is sociable, especially if it helped send some of my followers over to the Musuem’s twitter feed and even more especially if it led to anyone’s deciding to go visit the Museum themselves. Being the six hundredth person to retweet a tweet about how Paul Ryan’s a big jerk? Not so much.
I need to be a better person.
Your turn. What do you like/dislike/love/hate about Twitter/Facebook?
Inspiration Point on Anacapa Island, part of the Channel Islands National Park, the setting for major events in When the Killing’s Done, a new novel by T. Coraghessan Boyle or as our old pal Nance, a Boyle fan, likes to call him, T. Unpronounceable Boyle.
This review is T.C. Boyle’s own fault. Every word of it, his doing.
I don’t mean that he’s responsible in the sense that what I’m about to write is a direct response to what he’s written in his newest novel, When the Killing's Done. I’m not that kind of reviewer. You know. Focused.
I don’t write about the books I’m supposedly reviewing as much as I do about what those books made me think about. Same goes for movies. It’s how I can write two whole posts on say, The Social Network, and not get around to mentioning that I liked it. If all a book or a movie makes me think about is itself and whether or not I liked it, I probably won’t write about it. I’m trying to train myself to write more formal reviews but as you can tell, it’s not happening here right now.
Hold on. I’ll try to focus.
When the Killing’s Done begins with a shipwreck:
Heavily, like a waterlogged post in a swollen river the boat shifted away from them. They’d painted her hull white to contrast with the natural wood of the cabin---a cold pure unblemished white, the white of sheets and carnations---and that whiteness shone now like the ghost image on a negative of a photograph that would never be developed. Unimpeded, the waves crashed at the windows of the cabin and then the glass was gone and the Beverly B. shifted wearily and dropped down and came back up again. The decks were below water now, only the cabin’s top showing pale against the dimness of the early morning and the spray that rode the wind like a shroud.
It’s one of the most powerful opening chapters of a novel I’ve read in a long time, terrifying, haunting, unsettlingly beautiful. But while most of its scenes are set on the water or within sight of it, When the Killing’s Done is not a tale of adventure at sea but the story of a battle of wills between a man and a woman. It’s a psychological drama with the main action taking place inside the heads of Alma Boyd Takesue, a scientist who works for the United States National Park Service, and Dave LaJoy, an animal rights activist and Alma’s self-appointed Nemesis.
Anacapa Island, one of the islands in the Channel Islands National Park off the coast of California, not too far out from Santa Barbara, has been overrun by rats who are raiding the nests of the local birds and threatening to wipe them out. The Park Service is implementing a master plan to restore the islands to a more natural state and bring back the native plants and animals that have been pushed out or to the brink of extinction by invaders. Later this will entail a controlled hunt of feral pigs, but it begins with the Park Service’s plan to exterminate the rats infesting Anacapa. The rats are descendents of rats that washed up after a shipwreck, another shipwreck, not the one that opens the novel---that one washes up Alma’s grandmother as a young woman and establishes Alma’s spiritual connection with the islands, a symbolic edge she holds over LaJoy throughout the book.
LaJoy has made it his mission to save the rats. He believes that killing any animal is wrong, but he’s especially incensed by the the plan to kill the rats. Not only is the method, a poison that causes massive internal bleeding, inhumane, but as he sees it there’s no justification for it. The rats are an introduced species. But so were the island foxes, just less recently, sixteen thousand years ago or so, but still. The rats are there because of human interference. But killing them off is just more interference. The Park Service’s plan, LaJoy says, is just another example of bureaucratic arrogance. He has a plan of his own to sabotage the Park Service’s plan.
But LaJoy is an angry, paranoid personality with a baseless grudge against the world. He takes everything personally, makes everything all about him, feels everything as containing a slight or a challenge, turns everything into a fight that he has to win and be seen to have won. He postures as a champion of wildlife but it doesn’t take him more than a paragraph or two to reveal himself as Alma’s implacable enemy in a very personal war. He wants to save the rats as a way to defeat and humiliate her. His goal is to break her spirit and destroy her career.
Alma isn’t in charge of the project, she’s head of public relations and her job is to explain the project to the public. There isn’t anything she can do to stop it, and there’s no good reason for LaJoy to have focused his animosity on her. But once upon a time she did something that for a brief but humiliating moment made him see himself as others see him. LaJoy thinks of himself as a heroic, noble, and romantic character who is doing the world a favor by demanding it live up to the high standards he sets for it. Alma shows him up as a rather commonplace sort of boor and bully, even something of a clown, and he can never forgive her for that or give up looking to get even. He has taken every chance he’s had since to embarrass her, turning up at her press conferences to challenge and heckle her and turn her audiences against her if he can.
The ocean figures prominently in When the Killing’s Done, as a fact and as a symbol and as an object of Boyle’s prose. So do animals. Birds. Eagles, bald and golden, scrub jays, burrowing owls, ravens (horribly). Flying fish. Dolphins. Sheep. Snakes. Those foxes and feral pigs. Raccoons.
Did I mention the rats?
But what the novel is mainly about, what drives the action, is LaJoy’s dangerously out of control ego and his self-righteous, monomaniacal determination to triumph over Alma. There isn’t anything overtly or unconsciously sexual in his obsession with her, by the way. He doesn’t see her as the attractive young woman she is because he doesn’t see her when he looks at her, he sees only a reflection of himself. She’s a mirror that presents him with what he has to believe is an unfair distortion of his true self. When he looks at her he’s forced to confront an idea that his ego and vanity just can’t accept. Alma stands for the possibility that LaJoy doesn’t matter, that the world doesn’t revolve around him and in fact doesn’t much care that he exists. LaJoy believes that he is force to be reckoned with, a master and commander of all he surveys. Alma represents the, to him, terrifying possibility that he commands nothing, that life, his life, is not his to direct and control.
Of course a character who is determined to exercise his will over everybody and everything is doomed to spend a book having it proved to him that life doesn’t work that way. The more LaJoy tries to control things, the more things slip from his grasp, with dangerous and deadly consequences.
Enough focusing for now. Back to drifting.
When the Killing's Done made me think about a number of things, environmentalism, activism, man and woman’s place in nature, fate, death, graduate school, mainly graduate school. And graduate school is how come this review’s Boyle’s doing.
It’s not that he wrote this book. It’s that he wrote a book. Water Music.
A hundred years ago, when I was working my way away from becoming a playwright and towards I wasn’t sure what but I was leaning towards writing fiction, or journalism, or something, I read a review of a new novel by a young writer the reviewer thought was hot stuff and the Real Thing. I believed the review and went straight to the library to check out the book. Two pages in I said to myself, “This is the kind of stuff I want to write!”
Then I said, “How do you learn to write this kind of stuff?”
Then I read the author’s biography.
“Ah ha!” I said. “You go to the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa and learn it there.”
Hey, I was a kid.
I already had a high opinion of Iowa because Kurt Vonnegut had taught at the Workshop. But knowing that Boyle had come out of there to write Water Music---and the stories in Descent of Man, which I read immediately after Water Music---clinched it for me. “I’m going to Iowa,” I said and, a couple of years later, I did.
So, it’s Boyle’s doing that I wound up in Iowa and it’s because I went to Iowa that I became the sort of writer I became and followed the path that led me to starting a blog that has turned into the kind of blog it is featuring posts about books like this.
Like I said. This review, Boyle’s fault.
Now, here’s the first thing I learned at Iowa, thanks to T.C. Boyle. “Show, don’t tell.”
Yes, I had to go all the way to Iowa to learn that.
“Show, don’t tell” was a commandment around the Workshop. One we were presumed to have learned in the Little Writers’ Sunday School, one of the less thundering ones grown-ups accept without hardly thinking about and obey, reflexively, out of habit and because they’re easy. Do not take the Lord’s name in vain. Remember his day and keep it holy. Honor they mother and father. Show, don’t tell. Commandments with lots of leeway. I don’t recall any of the writers who taught the workshops preaching the virtues of showing over telling in class. But my first semester there, the great literary critic Albert Guerard came to speak and his sermon was actually titled “Tell, don’t show.” Guerard read passages from Conrad and Faulkner in which, according to Guerard, those giants told and not showed. This was rank heresy and there was much debate around the bars where we hung out for days afterwards. I came away from the lecture thinking, “Gee, I read Pylon in ninth grade and I don’t remember that scene at all.”
I also came away thinking that I must have missed the point because the passages Guerard read seemed to show a lot. It took me a little while to work out that what Guerard meant was that the art was in the telling of what the writer was showing. He was talking about style and recommending having lots of it. To put it another way, at this time Raymond Carver was the reining Workshop god and minimalism was the preferred religion. It was a low church religion of steeple-less, white-washed, unadorned meeting houses. Guerard was there to sing the praises of cathedrals, and, yes, Raymond Carver has a collection of stories called Cathedral, no, I didn’t intend any irony.
Reading When the Killing’s Done made me wonder if Guerard had made an earlier visit to Iowa and if Boyle had gone to the lecture and taken it to heart. If he’d been inoculated against minimalism. One thing I’ve always liked about Boyle’s style, right from the opening sentence of Water Music, is that you wouldn’t call it terse. “Spare” is a reviewer’s word that guarantees I won’t read the book being reviewed. Reviewers praise an author’s “sharp, spare prose” as a coded way to let us know that the author has a limited supply of adjectives at his or her disposal and rarely gets far past the subject and predicate before slamming the brakes on a sentence with a sharp, spare period. Nobody would ever describe Boyle’s prose as spare. And in When the Killing’s Done it seems less spare than ever. There’s quite a lot of telling, not showing. And, guess what. I didn’t like that.
I liked the book. I’d better make that clear right now because in a few more sentences it’s not going to sound like I did.
But Boyle went overboard.
That’s a joke. You’ve probably guessed that boats figure prominently in When the Killing’s Done, and a lot of people literally go overboard. They go overboard literarily too, tossing up great big splashes of not-at-all spare prose.
But the up and down rhythms of his prose during scenes set on the water, with images crashing into each other, the rolls and lifts in tone and mood, the words flowing on and on in sentences not ending so much as breaking, appropriate to describing a storm at sea aren’t quite so appropriate to describing chopping vegetables or eating a ham sandwich, and I’m not being funny there.
Boyle uses up a prodigious number of words to tell us things I’m not sure we needed to be told or shown and to tell or told and shown in such detail. Then he spends pages telling us other things that if they worth that much of our attention ought to have been worth showing. If an event is worth several pages of expository flashback, they’re worth the space in the narrative to work themselves out dramatically. For instance, it’s helpful to know LaJoy owns his own business and he’s made money at it because it explains how he has the time and means to devote to his cause. But if it’s important that we know how he opened his first store and made a success of it, then we should not hear about it a reverie of memory that occurs because LaJoy’s mind is drifting during a scene Boyle needs but doesn’t want to dwell on.
Then there’s his odd approach to dialog. He resists including it. For long stretches characters think their way through scenes that you’d expect them to be talking their way through. Alma and LaJoy have a habit of holding forth in interior monologs when they could and should be sharing their thoughts with other characters who are standing right there, and this isn’t always or even usually because the subjects of their thoughts at the moment are private or because Alma and LaJoy are feeling secretive or shy or that the other characters with them wouldn’t understand or don’t need to know. It just seems to be that at this or that particular point in the writing Boyle felt like showing rather that letting them tell what’s on their minds.
As it happens, both Alma and LaJoy are types inclined to keep things to themselves, Alma because she is introspective and intellectually minded and a scientist, which is to say an observer by training, habit, and temperament, LaJoy because he’s arrogant and presumptuous and self-absorbed---he assumes that what he’s thinking is obvious to anybody who isn’t an idiot, which means that if you don’t know what he’s thinking and know that he’s right without having to be told, you must be an idiot and therefore not worth the effort and time it would take him to explain things to you. So it makes sense that there would be times when both Alma and LaJoy would keep their own counsels. It just doesn’t make sense that when they do their internal soliloquies are delivered in poetic cadences and imagistic language identical to the narrator’s. Alma and LaJoy do think alike, sometimes, and I’ll get to that, but they shouldn’t think that alike.
But there are three extended set pieces that take place on dry land, or relatively dry land, in which Boyle is content to show through a mix of dialog and an appropriately flatter, less wordy---but not spare---and more direct prose, that are as exciting, frightening, and spooky as the opening shipwreck. And the novel is crowded with interestingly and entertainingly eccentric characters, told and shown, including its two compelling leads.
Alma and LaJoy are a well-matched pair of adversaries. They have more in common than either would admit. Alma has her own streak of self-righteousness and she can be as fiercely and arrogantly judgmental as LaJoy. The difference is that when LaJoy judges someone and finds they fail to measure up it’s a moment of personal triumph for him. But for Alma the moment always engenders a degree of self-doubt. Judging others is a way of judging herself. The question for her isn’t In what way did they fail to measure up?, but Do I measure up myself to the standard I just set for them? And the answer isn’t always or even usually, Yes. LaJoy is always driven to prove himself right. Alma is open to the possibilities that she is not only wrong but in the wrong.
This makes it difficult for her to stand up to LaJoy, but it does give her the ability to recognize and learn from her mistakes and that gives her the ability to outlast him. And it’s why, despite her being intellectually detached where he is passionate, coolly pragmatic where he is idealistic, and cheerfully, almost childishly self-indulgent where he is stoic, Spartan, and (in his own eyes, at any rate) self-denying, the natural man to her material girl, she’s the one better suited to taking care of the islands and their flora and fauna. LaJoy cares more intensely, but he cares about the animals he wants to save and protect the way he cares or doesn’t care about anything, that is to the degree he sees them as extensions of himself. In When the Killing’s Done, Alma occupies a place that in another sort of novel would be occupied by a villain, the bureaucrat and cold-blooded technocrat. But it’s her ability and her willingness to see herself as, if not a villain, not necessarily a heroine that makes her a force for good.
LaJoy, to his own continual surprise, is in the opposite boat.
Another reason I wondered if Boyle had ever encountered Albert Guerard, either in person or through his reading, is that along with Faulkner and Conrad Guerard’s third example of an author who often told instead of showed was Dostoevsky, and all three of those writers built stories and novels around central characters who were as unpleasant and initially unsympathetic as Dave LaJoy.
LaJoy is in the position that ought to be occupied by a hero. His full name, David Francis LaJoy, ought to identify him as a hero. David, slayer of giants. Francis, after St Francis, friend of animals. LaJoy as in surprised by…, and …in the morning, and …to the world, although also unfortunately, but tellingly, consonant with kill…
He is a lone, little guy standing up against a giant bureaucracy, an animal lover and protector, an idealist facing off against pragmatically self-serving and, he believes, cynical and hypocritical careerists. He is smart, bold, brave, resourceful. But…
His courage is a form of affrontery, the courage of a bully so determined to show who’s right, so sure it’s him, that it doesn’t occur to him that he might be setting himself up to get his ass handed to him.
Ironically, it’s his obliviousness to his own self-destructive and self-defeating tendencies and his vain, stubborn, blockheaded refusal to even consider the possibility that he is in the wrong, ever, or accept that there are things, and people, beyond his control that earn our grudging sympathy.
We understand the source of his frustration. Life won’t let us be the heroes and heroines we would like to be either. And, all too often, no matter how hard we try to be good and do the right thing, it all turns to soot and ashes in our hands. We cast off in our snug and trim litle boats, the water smooth and the sun shining, confident and competent hands on the tiller, and suddenly, with a safe harbor in sight, the sea rises and swallows us up. The waves close over our efforts, our hopes, and our dreams, and there’s no trace of our ever having even tried to make the crossing. LaJoy isn’t a hero, but he wants so hard to be one and tries so hard that he almost succeeds in becoming a certain kind of hero, a tragic one.
Photos of Inspiration Point and the island fox courtesy of the National Park Service.
She's done the rodeo gamut: cattle roping, goat tying, you name it. But barrel racing is her passion; she has the bruised, scraped knees from hitting barrels to prove it.—from Tuesday’s Times Herald-Record story on local rodeo champ, Rachel Sameuls, age 17.
The world as it’s covered in Blogtopia (h/t Skippy) is a world defined by television news and the editorial pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. It’s a gray, joyless world in which everything revolves around politics and politics is mixed up with a deracinated, sexless form of television celebrity, and everybody, pundits, politicians, and bloggers think, write, speak, and argue as if the next Presidential election is tomorrow, its results will decide everything, and its outcome hinges on proving that what the people you disagree with most are wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong again.
But in the world covered by my local paper Donald Trump isn’t running for President, Michelle Bachmann barely exists, the next Presidential election is still a year and a half away, and nobody’s going to see Sucker Punch or cares that anybody’s going to see Atlas Shrugged, Part I.
This isn’t to say that world covered by my local paper is a finer, braver, happier, smarter, or better world to live in. There’s plenty of sorrow, heartache, and pain, not to mention madness, stupidity, cupidity, cruelty, meanness, and plain evil. It just happens to be a world that people can and do live in. Consequently, the news from that world tends to be about how people are going about living in it as opposed to being about what a bunch of millionaire journalists and their lobbyist friends argued about at lunch yesterday.
There’s much to get angry about, but more to make you if not thankful to be living in it, then at least feeling involved. In the world according to my newspaper, individuals have some agency in their lives and don’t have to sit staring at their computer screens, wringing their hands and praying that some politician or journalist finally gets it or a fellow blogger nails it in the hopes that somebody will finally fix things in order to feel like they matter.
It doesn’t make the news stories more important or necessarily truer to life as it really is, just more varied. There are politicians in both worlds, but in Blogtopia (h/t Skippy) there aren’t many 17 year old rodeo champions:
Rachel's mother, Jae, rode horses until three weeks before giving birth to Rachel.
Two days after Rachel was born, she attended her first rodeo, in Massachusetts.
She got her first horse at age 3, competed in her first rodeo a year later. She played other sports, too, but gave them up.
Horses are better than boyfriends, she says — "they're more reliable, you can trust them more. They want to please you, they want to do their job."
Read all of Keith Goldberg’s story in my local newspaper. Registration recommended but not required.
Photo by Tom Bushey of the Times Herald-Record.
England and the world are probably lucky the current Royal Family isn’t as “interesting” as this gang.
Is there some big social event happening in England this week? Somebody’s getting married or something?
The news of Kate and William’s wedding bores me to the point that it bores me to even think about how much it bores me. I’ve never been interested in the Royal Family as people only as a starting point for working backwards through British history. Pick a king, or a queen, any king or queen, and it won’t be long before what you’re talking about is a really bloody war. By the way, one of my bar bet tricks is that I can name all the kings and queens of England in order starting with William the Conqueror. Buy me a drink sometime and you can test me. And out of that whole crew there are about five who are interesting as individuals and one of them is only interesting because the poor old blighter went stark raving mad and another because he was a debauched wastrel who broke his mother’s heart on a daily basis. Besides George III and Edward VII, the others are Henry II, Henry VIII, and the first Elizabeth. I’m willing to listen to cases made for Edward III, Henry IV, and William of Orange. But one of the dullest was one Shakespeare made fascinating, at least to listen to, Henry V. Richard II and Richard III are great as fictional characters. In real life they were boring nobodies who happened to make themselves the victims of regicides.
Victoria is a special case, being the heroine of a 63 year long royal soap opera. Something of the same could be said for the current queen.
Edward VIII with his Nazi sympathizing should be on the list but he was such a pissant little twerp that it’s impossible to think of him as a real villain or even much care that he was willing to make common cause with Adolph Hitler.
So that’s three who were interesting and accomplished individuals in their own rights, great rulers and great men and a great woman, and the last of them finished her reign over four-hundred years ago. The rest are only important for the trouble they caused, which they usually did by being either too commonly stupid, weak, greedy, or bloody-minded. Just about all of them since Queen Anne are historically and biographically overshadowed by their Prime Ministers.
What I’m getting at is this.
I’m glad there’s a British Royal Family and I hope the Brits don’t abolish the monarchy.
I don’t pay them much attention, and when I do I’m usually disappointed that I bothered, but the fact of them matters to me or, rather, to my overall sense of what England is and is like as much as it matters that it’s the country that produced Shakespeare, Dickens, Magna Carta, Winnie the Pooh, and fish and chips. Abolishing the monarchy would be like demolishing Big Ben and bulldozing Stonehenge. It would be like tearing a piece of England’s heart out.
Writing in the Independent, John Hari takes on the one last, practical defense of maintaining the Royal Family, they bring in the tourists:
In fact, of the top 20 tourist attractions in Britain, only one is related to the monarchy – Windsor Castle, at number 17. Ten places ahead is Windsor Legoland. So using that logic, we should make a Lego man our head of state.
But people don’t come visit a country just to see the sights and tour the museums. They come to get a feel for the character of the place and the people who live there and the monarchy is integral to the character of England (if not to all of Great Britain; Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are themselves without the Queen, thank ye). It’s intriguingly eccentric that here’s this modern, generally progressive, democratic-republican nation that nevertheless spends a, ahem, royal fortune on saddling themselves with a queen and pretending that she matters.
I’d probably feel a lot differently if it was my tax money paying for a handful of dull nobodies to live like, well, kings and queens. And they’re easy enough to ignore over here. Their nonsense and the nonsensical way they’re covered by the British media don’t show up in my daily Twitter feed. I can go months, almost whole years, without thinking about the Royals as real people. The most thought I’ve given to Queen Elizabeth in ages is as her fictionalized self as a child in The King’s Speech. If William and Kate’s upcoming wedding was actually a newsworthy event to me I’d probably be as republican and anti-monarchist as Hari who declares the whole thing an embarrassment to the nation.
The US head of state grew up with a mother on food stamps. The British head of state grew up with a mother on postage stamps. Is that a contrast that fills you with pride?
No, it's not the biggest problem we have. But it does have a subtly deforming effect on Britain's character that the ultimate symbol of our country, our sovereign, is picked on the most snobbish criteria of all: darling, do you know who his father was? Kids in Britain grow up knowing that we all bow and curtsy in front of a person simply because of their unearned, uninteresting bloodline. This snobbery subtly soaks out through the society, tweaking us to be deferential to unearned and talentless wealth, simply because it's there.
We live with a weird cognitive dissonance in Britain. We are always saying we should be a meritocracy, but we shriek in horror at the idea that we should pick our head of state on merit. Earlier this month, David Cameron lamented that too many people in Britain get ahead because of who their parents are. A few minutes later, without missing a beat, he praised the monarchy as the best of British. Nobody laughed. Most monarchists try to get around this dissonance by creating – through sheer force of will – the illusion that the Windsor family really is steeped in merit, and better than the rest of us. This is a theory that falls apart the moment you actually hear Charles Windsor speak.
Read the whole rant.
Wide awake at four o’clock this morning trying to read myself back to sleep by reading about people who, wide awake at four o’clock in the morning, heard the voice of God calling to them.
One of them doesn’t think the voice he heard was God’s, exactly. He believes it was the voice of “the mind” of the universe. It’s the mind we all share in. It’s what the the “mind” speaking to us in our heads draws its voice from. I think he means something like Emerson’s Over-soul. But it might as well be God.
The other didn’t hear an actual voice speaking but he believes God was calling him nevertheless.
The first person is a fairly ordinary guy, except that he has spent nearly forty-five years thinking about what the voice said to him and what it means and what he and everybody else is supposed to do about it. The voice made him a philosopher. Although he never pursued formal training or held a teaching position and in fact continued at his job as a brick mason until he retired, over the years he has donated what extra money he has been able to spare to funding university-sponsored essay contests in which entrants are asked to answer the big questions about life, the universe, and everything.
The second is a scientist. Not just a scientist. This scientist. Dr Collins had been struggling with---or against---a dawning religious conversion when God spoke to him.
On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.
God had called on him to become an Evangelical Christian.
Obviously, and not incidentally, God did not call upon him to give up being a scientist. He went on with his chosen career and not as one of those quack scientists oil company apologists in Congress call upon to “debunk” global warming or creationists trot out to support intelligent design. Collins is a creationist’s nightmare, an Evangelical who believes that evolution happens to be how God did it.
Both these men’s stories are versions of one of my nightmares.
I am terrified that some night---or early morning---I will wake up hearing the voice of God and that I will listen to it.
I don’t believe in God anymore. That anymore is the key part of that statement. Giving up my belief hasn’t made me feel smarter. It’s made me feel robbed. I miss it. I can still feel it sometimes too, the way an amputee can still feel a missing limb or a grieving person will feel the company of a loved one or friend who has died. But when I try to stand on it or reach out to embrace it, it vanishes and that leaves me sad and frustrated and…lonely.
It also leaves me feeling relieved.
See, much as I miss it, I don’t want it back because I don’t, well, believe that if I start believing again I will actually believe. I’m convinced that if my belief returns it will only be a desperate subconscious attempt to fool myself into believing so that I have a defense against fear, despair, sadness, or loneliness or all of the above.
In other words, I’m scared that I will believe because I’m scared.
Consequently, I’m on guard all the time against any thoughts that might indicate I’m starting to believe again. This means that if God ever does decide to talk to me, he’s going to have his work cut out for him.
There’s not much of a point to this post, but it does let me tell one of my favorite anecdotes.
I had a friend, an English professor and poet, who was as unapologetic an atheist as an atheist can be. One of his favorite things to say, which he usually said after hearing of some good, kind, noble, or decent thing someone had done, was, “Too bad there’s no such place as heaven.”
One day he pulled this in front a of a colleague, another poet who was not only a believer, but as unapologetic a believer as a believer can be. He was also a touch flamboyant and had a way of delivering the simplest statements in such a grand, gushing, and utterly charming manner that you wanted him to be right even if he was in effect calling you an ass just for the aesthetic beauty of it. And when my friend delivered his favorite line, the poet threw him a great big beatific smile and said, “Oh, Jim, you are going to have such a beautiful deathbed conversion!”
Jim threw a book at him.
I hope it was one of the second poet’s own books.
Anyway, that’s my fear for the day, a beautiful deathbed conversion.
This morning, though, at four o’clock, the only voices I heard were the birds’. They were beautiful in their own right and God kept his majesty out of it.
Apparently, Collins causes fits in atheists too.
By the way, the book I was reading didn’t help me go back to sleep because it’s too interesting: The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer. I’m going to be reviewing it here within the next week or so. Next up for review, though, is T.C. Boyle’s newest novel, When the Killing's Done. Not that I’m assigning homework.
Oh, and in case you missed it, Friday I reviewed Boneheads: My Search for T. Rex by Richard Polsky.
Post script added Sunday afternoon.
The headline on this post by Salon movie critic Andrew O’Hehir asks Why are Christian movies so awful? But that’s the copy editor’s question. O’Hehir himself isn’t wondering why they’re awful, just so damn mediocre. “Lame.”
Does the Lord really want to be glorified by way of something that looks like an especially tame episode of "Baywatch"?
That strikes me as facile. For one thing, Dennis Quaid is no David Hasselhoff. (That cuts both ways.) For another, and this touches on a point I’m going to get to, if the beach scenes in Soul Surfer feature any ambulatory decor remotely resembling Pamela Anderson or Yasmine Bleeth then Soul Surfer is not a “Christian” movie, no matter how preachy it gets.
But the comparison to television seems apt. These movies look like they have the same low-budget-necessitated anti-aesthetic production values and take the same dully conventional approaches to character and narrative as Hallmark Hall of Fame Specials and Lifetime movies. Except for Soul Surfer, they star the same sort of bland, familiar but not famous, white bread actors too. They look like they were made for television.
You can tell the difference within a few seconds of watching either of those shows. They present a much more active form of faith. Not surprising since the main characters are agents of God. They are here on earth to do things. Their purpose is to help make life better in the here and now.
They are in the business of saving people.
Actually, so are the main characters in Baywatch, another reason O’Hehir’s comparison is off the mark.
The main characters in these Christian movies are in the business of being saved.
They don’t do things for others. The main action of the movie is in their having things done to them. “Christian” movies are targeted at a conservative Christian audience and so they reflect conservative Christian beliefs and the main one of these is that the individual is essentially helpless in the face of temptation. Which means that if a movie is to be “Christian,” it has to have at its center characters who are passive and to a great degree helpless.
Helplessness on the part of the hero or heroine is not traditionally the stuff that makes for exciting storytelling.
Dramatically, both Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel were only incidentally about religion. They owed their structures and their conventions to other TV shows that weren’t explicitly about faith and religion. Route 66, The Fugitive, Run for Your Life, Then Came Bronson, The Incredible Hulk (seriously) and Kung Fu (even more seriously)---shows about wanderers and seekers who found themselves in a position to do somebody else some good every week and, sometimes cheerfully, sometimes despite themselves, did it.
Tod and Buz, Richard Kimball, Paul Bryan, Jim Bronson, and David Banner were not overtly religious men. (Caine is a special case.) And none of them would have thought of himself as an angel---Kimball, Banner, and Caine, particularly; pressed, they’d have described themselves as lost souls. All three of them could have been named Caine or, rather, Cain. Although unlike the original, they were guiltless (or in Caine’s case relatively guiltless), they would have felt they’d lost God’s favor or his protection.----but they all acted as if they believed that if we have a purpose on earth it’s as Kurt Vonnegut’s son, Mark, the doctor, says: “We’re here to help each other through this, whatever it is.”
If there is religion behind this idea, it is a religion that teaches that faith is best expressed in the act of helping others---in good works.
Touched By An Angel and Highway to Heaven owe inspiration to to the nun and priest movies of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, as well. Boys’ Town, Going My Way and The Bells of St Mary’s, and Heaven Knows, Mr Allison are about people who’ve consciously taken on the job of being agents of God. (It’s important to keep in mind that that’s a sacrifice, an act of extreme self-denial for them, requiring constant self-effacement and abnegation, not a matter of self-aggrandizement.) They spend their lives in and around churches and, we suppose since it’s part of the job description, devote many hours of their work days to prayer and contemplation, but we see them out and about in the world, doing things for others.
No way am I suggesting that either Highway to Heaven or Touched by an Angel was as good as those classic movies and TV shows, although Highway to Heaven could have its moments. Michael Landon was not a hack. But I am saying that like their forerunners, they presented a liberal and humanistic version of religious faith.
Not necessarily politically liberal, although for Hollywood in the New Deal Era and Television in the 60s and 70s that would have been the default setting, but liberal in the sense of having as its goal making life on earth better for everybody.
A conservative version of Christianity, which is the version currently receiving almost all the media’s attention to the point that a great many people, particularly conservatives themselves, but lots of liberals too, think that it is the only version, has as its main if not only goal individual salvation. And that salvation can only be achieved by God’s grace. You can only be saved if God decides to save you and if he decides to, there’s nothing you can do to stop it, and if he decides not to, no amount of begging will help, although begging can’t hurt. No amount of good deed-doing will help you either. You can be damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It’s entirely up to him. The only thing you can do to help save yourself is believe.
Fireproof is about a firefighter whose personal bad behavior is ruining his marriage. It’s kind of a conservative Christian Rescue Me. But you can argue that Rescue Me is a liberal Christian Fireproof. In Rescue Me the reason we root for Tommy Gavin to get the better of his personal demons is that he is a heroic firefighter. We accept him as a good guy who is worth saving because he is so good at saving others. But in Fireproof the fact that the main character spends his days risking his life to save others doesn’t matter because he isn’t right with God. The fact that he is a hero is almost held against him, partly because his heroism has become a source of vanity and pride and he uses the dangers and demands of the job as excuses for self-indulgence. But it’s also the case that his is a worldly success and a worldly fame. The message here is that it doesn’t matter how wonderful you appear to be in the eyes of other men and women if you aren’t a shining light in God’s eyes.
Tommy Gavin, though, is right with God. He needs to get right with himself. That’s what Jesus and the ghosts keep appearing to tell him. Straighten up, man, get over it, get over your guilt, get over yourself. You’ve got a job to do. Tommy’s God-given responsibility is to other people. In Fireproof and other conservative Christian movies, the main character’s first responsibility is to himself and his own salvation. That’s how Fireproof can have as its happy ending the firefighter’s hero’s return to hearth and home. Although his job is ostensibly to rescue other people, the hero is rewarded for allowing himself to be rescued. He’s rewarded for giving in and accepting Jesus as his personal savior and his reward is a little bit of heaven on earth. He’s granted a place he can retreat into in order to escape the temptations of this world.
It’s the old debate between Faith and Good Works. It’s not that conservatives don’t believe in the importance or efficacy of good works or that liberals don’t place any importance on faith. But it is the case that liberals believe that you don’t have to believe in God to get into heaven and conservatives do. But more to the point here is that conservatives believe that the whole purpose of life on earth is getting right with God which can only be achieved by having Faith. This is how we find ourselves facing down the attempts by would-be theocrats to make ours a “Christian” nation by allying themselves with corporate sociopaths who not only don’t want to help the poor and the weak but actively despise them. Conservative Christians don’t have time to spend worrying about those from whom God has apparently withdrawn his favor. They’re too busy worrying about whether or not he’s going to withdraw his favor from them. All their time and effort have to go into keeping the faith. This means not just resisting but eliminating all temptation to doubt. The culture wars are all about conservative desperation to drive their own personal demons from the public sphere so those demons don’t threaten their faith.
To put it starkly and simply, liberals see religion as being about how to live well here on earth and conservatives see it as being about getting into heaven. A liberal’s religion begins with walking out the church door and a conservative’s begins with walking back in, shutting and locking the door behind you, and never opening it again not even to take a peek at the weather.
A conservative Christian movie, then, is a movie about coming back to church. It’s about rejecting the world and withdrawing from it, at least, in spirit. It’s a movie in which victory is won not through self-sacrifice but through putting the self ahead of everything else and then celebrating that fact. “God loves me! I am saved!”
Conservative Christians might argue that it’s not the self that’s celebrated, it’s the soul’s salvation as a goal. But that’s a dodge. The point is that we’re meant to cheer the single individual for that individual’s own sake. This is a quality that makes most action movies and so many triumph of the nerd comedies so unappealing. The point is self-aggrandizement.
Conservative Christianity isn’t the only religion or philosophy to teach that worldliness is the main obstacle to salvation or, as the Buddhists call it, enlightenment. But it tends to equate worldliness with bodied-ness and so, for conservative Christians, the greatest temptations are sins of the body, primarily, in fact almost exclusively, sex. But the main reason most people go to the movies is to watch pretty people doing sexy things. That means that for conservative Christians movies are temptations. In order to make a movie for conservative Christians you have to make a movie that rejects the main reason for there being movies.
Conservative Christian movies can’t be sexy. Think about that. You’re setting out to make a movie knowing that you have to avoid what movies are about. That’s going to affect your casting, script, costume, set, and make-up designs, lighting, and even the editing, with the pressure pushing you towards bland and unexciting choices in every aspect of your filmmaking.
So you have movies that are about passive, self-aggrandizing, sexless heroes and heroines.
I don’t go to the movies to be preached at. Few people do. But there’s a sizable number of a certain sort of conservative Christian who will only go to the movies if they know they’re going to hear a sermon. When I want to go to church, I go to church. These Christians want everywhere they go to be church. They need the constant reassurance that church provides. That’s why they want their politicians to be as big a bunch of God-botherers as their preachers and why they want to reinstitute prayer in public school classrooms. They need to be told over and over again that it’s all going to be fine, it’s all going to work out, that they are good and God loves them and won’t abandon them and that they are going to heaven when they die.
Now how are you going to make a good movie for grown-ups if your guiding dramatic principle is a Sunday School lesson for children?
Soul Surfer is based on a true story. It’s being marketed for a Christian audience, but from the reviews, I can’t tell what makes it a “Christian” movie, particularly. It’s about a family of surfers who happen to be devout Christians and you couldn’t tell their story and leave out the Christianity any more than you could leave out the waves. I also can’t tell what sort of Christians Bethany Hamilton and her family are. There’s a scene where Bethany and her church group go to Thailand to bring aid and supplies to the survivors of a tsunami. But that doesn’t signify one way or the other. As I said, conservative Christians aren’t indifferent to doing good works, they just don’t believe that it’s enough to get you into heaven. The main thing, though, is that Bethany doesn’t appear to have needed any saving. Her faith gave her the strength, courage, and confidence to get back on her surf board, but asking God for that kind of help is something believers of all sorts and conditions do. What would mark Bethany as a conservative Christian and Soul Surfer as a conservative Christian movie is if she believes it’s God’s plan for her to become a champion surfer. It’s interesting to me how many people God has saved with the intention that they go on living the life they were already living and doing the things they always wanted to do for themselves anyway. So if there is anything like a “God wants me to be rich and famous so I can spread his word” speech in the movie, then we’ll know.
A “God gave me this talent for a purpose” speech would come closer but wouldn’t be definitive.
“God wants me to keep going so others who are facing adversity and disappointment and suffering and pain will be inspired to keep going themselves” would shade things a little towards the liberal side, but here’s the thing.
I know many Christians who are politically and socially conservative but who practice a very liberal form of Christianity. They might not be comfortable with the words “Social Justice,” but I think they recognized what Glenn Beck was ranting about and they didn’t like it that he was attacking their faith.
In this interview with NPR, Hamilton doesn’t mention her faith or even bring up God, except maybe in the most oblique way. She talks a lot about surfing and when she does she sounds more like an artist than a believer. She also displays a merry sense of humor.
“You leave little notes on my pillow. I’ve told you a hundred and fity eight times, I can’t stand little notes on my pillow. ‘We’re all out of corn flakes, F.U.’ It took me three days to figure out F.U. was Felix Unger!”
You can watch with us. The whole movie is on YouTube, starting here.
One summer day in 1990, a fossil collector named Sue Hendrickson, walking what millennia ago was a riverbed in South Dakota, looked up when she might have looked down, or left, or right, or up again but at a different angle or into the sun or right at it without seeing it, spotted it, or what was possibly it, but probably wasn’t, though you never knew, sticking out of the face of a cliff. Sue and the crew of fossil hunters she was working with started the long, tedious, careful, careful process of digging it out.
Seven years, a lawsuit, a criminal trial, lots of hurt feelings, and eight million dollars and change later, it was at home in the Field Museum in Chicago, fully articulated, forty feet six inches long from nose bone to tail, 3,922 pounds without skin, flesh, or muscle, “the largest, most complete, best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex in the world.”
The thing that happened was this. Peter Larson, the collector leading the expedition, had arranged with the rancher who owned the land that any fossils Larson and his team dug up were Larson’s, for a price to be negotiated. Larson called the owner, a Cheyenne River Souix named Maurice Williams, and offered Williams five-thousand dollars. Done and done. In Larson’s defense, he didn’t yet know what a treasure Hendrickson had found for him. To his discredit and later chagrin, he suspected she had found something extraordinary.
Turned out, though, Williams didn’t own the land outright. It was held in trust for him by the federal government. (It’s complicated.) The Feds stepped in. So did Williams’ tribal council. They said the tribe owned the land, and therefore Sue, belonged to tribe. (Also complicated.) Larson found himself in a world of trouble with the Feds for some questionable things he’d done on other fossil expeditions. He wound up in jail. Williams walked away in the end with most of the money Sue brought at auction, 7.6 million dollars out of the 8.3 the Field Museum paid for her. But he carried with it a dinosaur-sized grudge against Larson and all his bone-collecting kind and, although it was a fairly safe bet his land would yield up more million dollar fossils, he promised himself no one would go looking while he had any say, a promise he kept. Until…
A former art dealer named Richard Polsky who’d once set out to become a paleontologist was gripped, gently, by a mild mid-life crisis and set out to discover what he missed out on when those two paths that diverged in the woods diverged for him back in college and he chose the one less traveled…by scientists anyway.
Polsky decided to go hunting for dinosaurs. Not just any dinosaurs. T. rexes. That’s where the glory was. That’s where the challenge was. Sue was one of only about 30 complete or nearly complete T-rex skeletons yet found. That’s also where the money was.
Polsky wasn’t in it for the money himself, but most of the most determined collectors were. Polsky decided to try to attach himself to one of their expeditions. Failing that, which he initially did, he planned on setting out on his own.
Boneheads: My Search for T. Rex is Polsky’s cheerful, breezy, often comic, generally charming, and in one very important way disappointing account of his return to the field.
The disappointment is mine and I brought it on myself. I was expecting a different sort of book.
I expected something that might have been written by a John McPhee. One vivid, dynamic, fact-jammed sentence after another filling me up with things I didn’t know---about geography, geology, the morphology of dinosaurs about the history of dinosaur science, about changes in thinking, new developments. You notice how Sue is displayed in the picture above, with her spine parallel to the ground? That’s not unfamiliar to anyone who’s paid any attention to dinosaurs over the last two decades, but it’s still a debate worth rehashing. I wanted it rehashed. I wanted Polksy to tell me stuff I didn’t know or at least tell me stuff I knew in new and interesting ways that made me feel like I was learning them for the first time. I wanted him to make connections to other things I knew that I’d never made myself with those connections amounting to something new.
McPhee does that as a matter of course. But it was unfair of me to expect Polsky to be McPhee. It’s unfair to expect any writer who isn’t John McPhee to be John McPhee. I wanted a book that might have been titled A Textbook Place for Theropods Polsky wrote Boneheads. The book he wanted to write.
And Boneheads is hardly fact-free. It’s just that Polsky takes a casual approach when it comes to working in facts. I don’t mean he’s indifferent to accuracy. I mean that when he’s moving his narrative forward he doesn’t break stride to go into detail. He’ll toss of a fact or two or three but without bothering to explain, illustrate, or offer a definition. For example, he routinely refers to T. rexes as theropods but he doesn’t waste many keystrokes telling us what a theropod is or how a T. rex fit the bill.
Theropods were---are---meat eaters. Three-toed meat-eaters. Three-toed, bipedal meat eaters. Theropods came---come---in all sizes. The skull of an alvarezsaurus can fit in your palm. The skull of a Giganotosaurus can’t.
T. rexes were theropods. Birds are theropods.
The T. rex-bird connection barely crosses Polsky’s mind, although it happens to be driving current scientific thought about dinosaurs. Birds are the dinosaurs’ living descendents. Jonah Choiniere, a post-doctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History, whose speciality is theropods and who gave me that quickie definition, has been devoting his research to gathering more proof of that relationship.
The word, theropod, by the way, means “beast foot.” Got that from Choiniere too.
It may be that Polsky figured his likely readers would know all this already and he didn’t want to waste their time. But as his narrative rolls along, dinosaurs themselves start falling by the wayside. For a once upon a time budding paleontologist supposedly out to see if he’d missed his true calling, he doesn’t seem all that interested in dinosaurs. Not as interested in them, at any rate, as he is in dinosaur hunters. They are the boneheads of the title.
This is the big thing I learned from Boneheads. I’d always assumed all the boneheads out in the field were scientists and academics working for museums and universities. But there’s a whole class of fossil collectors who work for themselves. Many of them aren’t trained paleontologists. Some of them aren’t scientists at all. Polsky with his high school internship with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and part of a semester in college as a paleontology major has a more professional resume than some of the most successful collectors had when they started out.
These boneheads are in it for the money, but they have to be. Without institutional support and backing, they have to pay their own and their crew’s salaries and supply their expeditions out of their own pockets. One of the collectors Polsky meets is doing well enough that he can offer his crews a health care plan. But for most it’s a scramble and since they’re under time and budgetary constraints they tend to work fast so that even the scientists among them aren’t always as meticulous about doing the field science that researchers back in university and museum laboratories need for their studies. (Update: There’s a note on this point from a very special guest in the comments.)
And while the collectors Polsky befriended prefer to sell their finds to museums that doesn’t mean that all the private boneheads think that way. “Most of them are good guys,” Michael Novacek, the American Museum of Natural History’s Provost of Science and the Curator of Fossil Mammals for the Division of Paleontology, told me when I got a chance to have a quick chat with him in his lab the other day, and then he left a large BUT hanging in the air. It’s likely that quite a bit of what gets found winds up in private collections.
Then there’s the problem with provenance. In order to sell a fossil you have to own it and you can’t own it if you found it on public land. So the boneheads have to do their digging on private land and make what deals they can with the owners. This is how Peter Larson got himself in trouble. The owners aren’t much concerned with the science, not as much as they’re concerned with their property and their businesses, which are often one and the same, because the textbook place for dinosaurs in the United States is in the West where what open land that isn’t owned by the government is working ranches. The boneheads have to get in and get out and they’re not always invited back. This summer Novacek is going back to an fossil-rich area in the Gobi Desert he and teams from the Museum have been working since 1993. A private bonehead may count himself lucky if a rancher has granted him a month to dig up his land.
The pressure, the need to rely heavily on luck, the whole catch-as-catch-can aspect of the business---the fact that it is a business and has to be---attracts a different type of character than the academic and institutional side. There are eccentrics, free-spirits, and egomaniacs in both camps, but because the academic paleontologists’ first commitment tends to be to science and the private collectors have to be committed first to their own financial survival which means they have to look out for Number One before they can go looking for fossils, the privateers, at least the ones Polsky introduces us to, are somewhat more…colorful.
They may not have bigger egos than the academics but they give theirs freer rein. Necessarily. Self-confidence is what they have to rely on to keep them going and force of personality is what carries them through their dealings with ranchers, buyers, their own crews, and each other. Calling them privateers makes them sound like pirates, of course, which they’re not, but they are freebooters and the buccaneer spirit is alive in their hearts. It’s no wonder Polsky was so taken with their company and that he let them hijack his story.
Now we’re getting to something Polsky’s done that didn’t disappoint me as much as it just made me grumpy.
These forceful personalities are mainly portrayed through long stretches of dialog and very little of it rings true. It doesn’t sound like real people talking. It sounds like a mildly tin-eared writer being overly-careful to get things right, right in the sense of clear and to the point and not right in that this how they said what they said. Everybody sounds like Polsky doing his best to convey how he remembers conversations went.
For all I know, he took copious and meticulous notes, has a phenomenal memory, and backed himself up with a tape recorder. It just doesn’t seem---sound---likely. I suspect he’s using Bob Woodward’s trick of granting himself poetic license for dramatic effect and justifying it on the grounds that if what’s inside the quotation marks isn’t really an exact quote, it’s what his sources told him they said or remember others as having said or the “quotes” capture the gist of what was actually said close enough. Plus, it’s the ebb and flow of a conversation that matters not the particular arrangement of words in isolated sentences. It’s an old and accepted, if unnecessary and troubling, practice. Creative summarization is more honest and can make for livelier reading. And, besides, people reveal themselves through the particular ways they arrange their words.
On top of this, there’s a Q & A rhythm to the reported conversations, as if Polsky couldn’t sit down for a chat with anyone without maneuvering them into an interview and interviews have a way of inhibiting the free flow of conversation. People Polsky wants us to get to know aren’t left to follow their own lines of thought and reveal themselves in the process. They tell us only about what Polsky thought to ask them about. It doesn’t help that most of these interviews appear to have been conducted on the fly, in bars and restaurants and during haphazard encounters at trade shows. Not the best circumstances for exploring complex ideas or untangling a complicated subject.
Not only aren’t they given much chance to tell us who they are, since Polsky didn’t follow many of them into the field they don’t get to show us either. We don’t watch them at work, and work (and play) is character in action. We don’t see them as they are rather than as the constraints of having to follow Polsky’s lead in the interviews force them to present themselves.
All this causes a problem for Polksy himself when he attempts to present his impressions of them in his own words. He has a habit of making definitive statements about their thinking, motivations, and psychological underpinnings that aren’t backed up by anything he’s reported them to have said or shown us they’ve done. Unable to tell us or show us who they are themselves but with Polsky casting doubt on the veracity of the portraits he paints of them, few of these characters stand out as characters.
One major exception is Bob Detrich the self-styled “Fossil King.”
If the boneheads are somewhat of a piratical crew in spirit if not in practice, Detrich is the crew member closest in spirit to Captain Jack Sparrow. He’s flamboyant, devious, inscrutable, with a self-confidence that on first glance, and second and third glance too, seems wildly misplaced, and maybe a touch mad.
Detrich’s claim to his title is based on his own successes---he once turned up a triceratops skeleton that netted him several hundreds of thousands of dollars---but just as much or more so upon important finds by two members of his team, another pair of exceptions, Stan and Steve Sacrisan, an irascible set of twins known as the Bonehead Brothers. Between them the Sacrisans have unearthed three T. rexes. But, apparently, as far as Detrich is concerned, since the Sacrisans usually work for him, he as good as found those T. rexes himself. Detrich also gives himself tremendous credit for finds he’s going to make. In fact, his imagined future discoveries seem to be more real to him than anything going on around him in the present.
He’s a slippery guy and won’t let himself be pinned down by Polsky’s interviewing style of conversation, and although we do get to see him at work---Polsky goes digging with him a couple of times---we get a better picture of him deliberately avoiding being seen at work. Detrich has something big in the works that he doesn’t plan to let anyone else in on until he’s done. He has no intention of sharing even a part of the glory he’s certain is coming his way.
Detrich’s already mentally achieved goal is to make a find that will be as monumental as the finding of Sue. Detrich plans to find the first T. rex egg.
Not just an egg. A whole nest.
So sure is he that he’s going to be the one that finds that first nest that he half-convinces Polsky that he’s already done it. The question in Polksy’s mind steadily evolves from Will he or won’t he? into Did he or didn’t he? Even a few of Detrich’s most skeptical rivals start to show signs of doubt…and hope.
The boneheads are a highly competitive crew but there’s a camaraderie among them. They root for each other even while trying to outdo each other, because one big find gives them reason to believe that there are more big finds out there to make.
The most important exception is Polsky himself. Polsky has no difficulty telling us and showing us who Polsky is and portraying this Polsky character as a character. A comic character, at that. Polksy is the comic heart and soul of his story. He presents himself as something of a naive goof, well-intentioned, determined, serious, but out of his league, out of his depth, and out of his element. If Boneheads was a western, not just set in the West among Westerners, Polsky would be the dude from the East. Actually, that’s exactly what he is anyway. He’s a little too fancy, fussy, and effete to fit in easily among the boneheads and he’s a little too quick to say or do the wrong thing, offending people he needs to charm and amusing people he needs to take him seriously. Polsky’s not a masochist about it, but he clearly gets a kick out of setting up laughs at his own expense. And he makes it clear that when he’s finally accepted among the boneheads as an honorary member if not actually one of their own, it isn’t so much because he’s earned their respect as their affectionate tolerance.
In a way, though, Polksy isn’t giving himself enough credit.
Two paths diverge in the woods. You have to choose one. Way leads on to way and though you may have intended to save the first for another day, that day will never arrive. It’s not that you can’t find your way back. It’s that you can’t be who you were when you made the initial choice. The paths you take change you as you travel them. When he tried to return to paleontology, Polksy couldn’t be who he was. He could only be who he is.
The thing to keep in mind as you read the book is that Polksy is a successful art dealer, a professional appreciator of other people's work. He’s good at it too, because he loves art and he has an eye. And that’s what he brings to fossil hunting and the world of the fossil hunters. Love and an eye for what’s beautiful about other people’s talents and visions.
Impressed with the price, I walked over for a closer examination of his most expensive fossils on display. What was astonishing was how the 9’ x 5’ slabs corresponded to one another. A single sheet of stone had been perfectly split down the middle, creating mirror images of the palm fronds. But what really caught my eye was the way the surrounding rock had been intentionally layered. By gently stripping away wafer-thin sections, the preparator was able to create wonderful illusions of depth.
Lindgren said, “People like having my fossils in their homes. They’re calming; they take us back to our roots. You find yourself becoming part of the piece.”
He was right. The more I stared at a fossil “painting,” the more I lost myself in the natural compositions of fish and the occasional sting ray. It was analogous to viewing great art. When you look at a painting, you want to feel the presence of the artist in the room with you. In this case, you wanted to feel as if the extinct creatures had come back to life---which is exactly how it felt like at that moment.
The professional boneheads are in it for the money and the glory. It turns out that Polksy is in it for the art.
Listen to an interview with Richard Polsky on NPR.Boneheads: My Search for T. Rex by Richard Polsky, published by Council Oak Books, is available from Amazon in ancient fossil editions as well as nearly lifelike kindle recreations.
Taking the A Train this morning.
Well, first I’m taking a Metro-North train. Then I’m taking the A Train. But not all the way to Harlem. To the American Museum of Natural History. I’m covering the opening of their newest exhibit, The World’s Largest Dinosaurs.
There’s a behind the scenes tour planned, so maybe I’ll get to talk to this guy---
The event starts at 10:30. I’ll probably post notes as I go on Twitter. Full post to follow later in the week.
At the end of the month I’ll be going back to the City to review another play at Classic Stage Company, The School for Lies. As I’ve said, I’m hoping to do more of this in the future. But with train fares, gas, parking, tolls, it’s going to add up. If you can swing it and can kick in a small donation, I’d be much obliged and it would be a real help towards making this a better and stronger blog and more fun for the whole family.