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Great Pan is Dead

March 21, 2019

Twenty-eight years ago, on a bright September morning, I met a group of twenty-five students signed up to take a course on 17th-century British Literature with a Kenyon professor who had decided not to come back after a year teaching abroad in Exeter. It was my first year as a visiting professor, and so, perhaps by coincidence, I met a person who has been a lifelong friend and several others who have kept in touch with me over the years, including one who became an author, Eric D. Lehman. Eric sent me a copy of his newest book Great Pan is Dead: My Encounters with Coincidence, which eventually found its way to my new office in the dining hall, although it was addressed to my former office in the library.

I am a great skeptic about coincidence. This is partly because throughout his life, my father enjoyed making a joke about having premonitions. He’d say that he’d had one, and then tell whoever would listen that so far his premonitions had never, not even once, come true. We were not a family that believed in the Unus Mundus, a world with underlying order and structure. We do not say that things “happen for a reason.”

I do believe that if you’re looking for meaning, you’ll find it, because people are wired to see patterns and notice cause and effect. Eric begins his discussion of coincidence by using the OED to define it as “a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection.” He seizes on the word “apparent” because as a child he felt that “it implied there could indeed be a hidden meaning, a hidden purpose.” He tells stories about coincidences that have made him think about whether there might be a “cosmic connection.”

The evolution of Eric’s thoughts and beliefs about coincidence is illustrated both with stories from books he’s read and from his own experience. Many of the stories from his experience are told with comments from the adult narrator, like “of course it wasn’t a very unlikely coincidence, but I mushed it all up in my head, thinking that ‘fate’ had its hand in every one of my adolescent shenanigans.” If you’re interested in such stories, you should not only read this book but also take a look at Professor David Spiegelhalter’s website where such stories are being collected and categorized.

The title story comes from a passage from Plutarch’s Moralia, the story of how the decision to announce that “Great Pan is Dead” was made simply because the wind died down when a certain man’s ship reached a designated place. “The refrain of Plutarch’s story,” Eric says, “stayed with me, echoing for years afterward: ‘Great Pan is dead!’ I would repeat it like a mantra, as a reminder that meaning arrives when the universe, such as it is, grants you grace. You could not look for it.”

Rather than ranging too widely into stories about synchronicity and serendipity or delving too deep and bringing up tales about noticing coincidence and using it to justify belief in the supernatural, this little book goes in another direction. It finds its way to the observation that we create meaning by sharing stories. Then it goes further, to consider the way coincidences can become signposts in the pattern of our lives, a record of the way each of us can “craft meaning in this moment, and the next.”

A series of nine small meditations on a theme, Great Pan is Dead is ideal for allowing readers to work in some contemplative moments between the events of their daily lives.

It is a coincidence that I’m recommending this book to you, since I might not have noticed its publication except for a long-ago connection with a group of people I would not have met except for a professor’s decision to leave her job at a time I was available to replace her. The meaning of her action is a signpost in my life.



March 18, 2019

IMG_2546I’m back from ICFA (International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts), and it was a swell time. Nowhere else can you brush elbows with such an array of famous science fiction authors– including the who one who caused an entire generation to choose white gold wedding rings (Stephen R. Donaldson)—beside a swimming pool. Nowhere else can you get so irritated by hearing people talk about the use of magic in books you love when the rest of the group is trying to continue a conversation about the use of science and technology in other books that you love.

IMG_2572This year I gave a presentation entitled “Politics and Profit: Artificial Intelligence in Gnomon, Autonomous, and Exit Strategy.” Eleanor gave a presentation entitled “The Politics of Magic and Trauma in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” (Her fellow panelists gave their presentations on “The Apolitics of Supernatural” and “The Dark Side of Politics from Game of Thrones to Black Mirror”).

I also chaired a session about post-apocalyptic SF with presentations on Station Eleven, “pragmatic” feminism, and books or films in which a lone woman who has lived past the end of civilization asks a lone man some variation of the question “are you a good person?” IMG_2568My friend Joan Slonczewski, an award-winning SF author, gave her annual “Clone with Joan” breakfast, where she led a discussion of recent scientific discoveries. She was on several panels, including one on the use of science and technology in SF, and she recommended me as the moderator, so I prepared a lot of questions and succeeded about as well as anyone could have in starting a discussion about the ways Joan, John Chu, Ted Chiang, and Geoffrey Landis use science and technology in fiction and then opening the conversation to an audience that included Gay and Joe Haldeman in the front row. For an hour and a half, everyone got a chance to talk and think about scientific ways of looking at the universe, including a digression about faster-than-light travel on the one hand and dragons on the other.

It was not only good to get out of the cold weather, it was good to talk and listen with people who care a lot about the kinds of books and ideas I like best. Also the five “flash” plays, each using the line “that’s the path to world domination” and each topping the previous one for thoughtful and hilarious political satire, were balm to my soul.

I was reading Lois McMaster Bujold novels on the plane and by the pool. I read Memory, with its great line “the one thing you can’t trade for your heart’s desire is your heart.” And then I read the next book in the series, Komarr, and liked it even better, from its analysis of the etymology of “disaster” as related to the astrological to its depiction of the heroine’s steadfast refusal to play anyone’s game but her own.

My refusal to play anyone else’s game is often masked by my enthusiasm, which explains the extent to which I identified with the heroine of Komarr:
“[her] face was bright and glowing, exhilarated by her field trip. ‘Don’t forget to put your mask back on the recharger,’ she chirped to her husband as she handed him hers.
[His] face darkened. ‘Don’t. Nag. Me.’ he breathed through set teeth.
She recoiled slightly, her expression closing as abruptly as a shutter. Miles stared off through the pillars, politely pretending not to have heard or noticed this interplay. He was hardly an expert on marital miscommunication, but even he could see how that one had gone awry. Her perhaps unfortunately-chosen expression of love and interest had been received by the obviously tense and tired [husband] as a slur on his competence.”
At one point, I was afraid I’d offended a very quiet and serious Ted Chiang because I enthusiastically repeated something said during a previous panel about metaphor to briefly respond to a point an audience member had made, and then Ted felt obliged to make a distinction between the metaphor I’d mentioned and what he had said about using the scientific method as metaphor.

Also I’ve felt how great it is to have someone finally say something when you are carrying a long-accustomed load and doing it well: “she smiled, clearly touched by the compliment. Dammit, she shouldn’t take this mild observation as if it were great praise. She must be starving half to death, if such a scrap seems a feast.”

The conference did seem a feast. I didn’t even feel as hungry as I usually do because it was so continually satisfying to drink in the conversations.


The Colors of All the Cattle

March 12, 2019

During spring break I read The Colors of All the Cattle, by Alexander McCall Smith, because every once in a while I like settling into the slow pace of reading one of his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels.

Unfortunately, I don’t aspire to becoming like any of his characters, least of all his main one, Mma Ramotswe, who is usually very patient and kind. Those are way down on the list of my virtues. Rarely, though, have I reacted as strongly to a description of a person’s virtues as I did to this one:
“She was reluctant to condemn other people for not being quite as good as they might be. She was not one to expect unattainable standards. She understood that many of us would like to be better in our personal lives but somehow could not seem to achieve it. She recognized that sometimes the best we could do was simply to muddle through, getting some things right but also getting many things wrong.”
I reacted so strongly because this is the complete opposite of how I relate to people. I am frequently impatient with people when they’re not as good as I think they should be. Ron frequently comments on how unattainable my standards are, especially for those I love.

But there’s a distinct pleasure in reading about people very different from you. In this novel, Mma Ramotswe lets herself be talked into running for public office. Again, this is something that I would never do, no matter how great the need and how noble the cause. And no matter how many people gave me a speech as deeply affecting as this one:
“If good people like you, Mma Ramotswe, will not stand up to those people, then they will win. They will win hands down and our town will be run by people who will not think of others, who will not care what they do, who will allow all sorts of people to build whatever they want, wherever they want, as long as it makes them money. Money, Mma. Money. Money. Everything will be judged by money—not by what people want, or what they feel, or what they believe in—just by money.”
We seem to be living in a country where everything is judged by money,

I do have one thing in common with Mma Ramotswe, of course. We are both what she would call “traditionally built.”

If It Turns Out You Forget to Say Anything

March 8, 2019

At Kenyon, everybody is busy all the time. But now it is spring break, and classes don’t meet for two weeks. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have to work, but it does mean that the pace is different and theoretically we can take some time to see people that we haven’t seen for a while.

Except, oh yes, they’ve left town. Walker has left town, on an exciting all-expenses-paid visit to one of the graduate programs that have admitted him and offered funding. Ron has left town, for a conference where he’s giving a presentation. The friends that I wish I could see more often have left town.

I am leaving town next week, to give a presentation about corporate and government surveillance and killer robots in Gnomon, Exit Strategy, and Autonomous at a conference in Orlando. Doing research for this presentation has unnerved me enough that I can no longer work on it without a piece of purple sticky note paper over the camera on my laptop.

Eleanor is giving her own presentation at the same conference, so I will see her there, although we’re each sharing a room with another friend, and she’s been very, very busy for the last few weeks, doing other work so she can make time to work on her presentation.

And so, for many reasons, I have been practicing not saying much of what I’m thinking about. That’s probably one impetus for this post, as reticence does not come naturally to me. As the internet joke goes, I’ll tell all of you strangers what I can’t talk about with my friends and family.

The other impetus was reading a volume of poetry by Wendy Xu entitled You Are Not Dead. It was recommended by one of the students who works for me. I saw him in the campus coffee shop the day before break and thanked him for recommending it, and we exchanged a couple of words about the poems. Then a man sitting at a table next to me joined in, saying how much he likes the volume. I thought he must be someone associated with Kenyon that I didn’t know, but it turned out that he was a poetry-loving visitor to campus.

So these are poems powerful enough to cause three people who don’t know each other well to strike up a conversation. Here’s the one I like best, in this season when it seems best not to say anything.

30326584_1If It Turns Out You Forget to Say Anything

It is the best thing that has ever happened. It is like
throwing a golden monkey wrench
down a hallway. Like seven horses suspended
over the ocean by stars as you look up
from your boat because sailing is about
possibilities. What happens to what we say now belongs
to no one. I think what is important is going
to the shore and staying awhile. Everyone
is dying from loneliness. Everyone flees
from inside the forgotten zoo.

The poem is full of comforting thoughts, like that not asking questions because you don’t want to hear the answer (“are you tired of my company after all these years?”) leaves room for possibilities. Rather than hearing an answer, let’s go on. Let’s pretend everything will always be the same. Let’s go to the shore and stay awhile, whenever we can. I’ll hide my loneliness if you will. I’ll flee like everyone else here.


If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say

March 6, 2019

There was no particular reason I picked up If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, by Leila Sales, except that it was on a display of new YA books at the library and I’ve been checking out piles of books to get me through the endless winter. The book cover told me that it’s “a novel about public shaming in the internet age.” What I didn’t know–but suspect the library staff did, since they displayed it so prominently–is that it’s about a high school senior who wants to be a writer and go to Kenyon College (which has a reputation as a writer’s college).

The high school senior, Winter Halperin, begins her story by confessing “I’m the one who went online after the National Spelling Bee and posted, ‘We learned many surprising things today. Like that dehnstufe is apparently a word, and that a black kid can actually win the Spelling Bee.’” There’s context for this post, like that Winter is a former National Spelling Bee champion and that she posted it on social media for what she thought was a small group of friends who are aware that, as she says later, “the National Spelling Bee is disproportionately won by kids from Southeast Asia. I’m one of the few white winners from the past decade, because so many of them have been of Indian or Pakistani descent. Black kids almost never win the Bee—even less often than white kids.” But, as Winter learns when a reporter reblogs her post, what she says reveals more about her than she realized when she tossed off the post and then went to bed.

Winter loses one of her (black) friends over the post; he says “let me spell it out for you: you said it’s a shock for a black person to win a competition that requires intelligence.” Her mother– who got her start as a mommy blogger, wrote six parenting books and makes her living as a parenting consultant “which means that she gives inspirational speeches on how anyone, with the right love, commitment, and strategy, can raise extraordinary children”—loses her career. Winter loses her acceptance to Kenyon.

The mother, of course, has to say “I don’t understand your generation’s impulse to share everything you think or do the instant it happens.” Winter, of course, closes all of her internet accounts and gets complete writer’s block from second-guessing how anything she says might be interpreted. Even the silly videos she used to make with her friends seem too dangerous to Winter, afterwards. She won’t help her friends make a video to get free Gatorade, telling them “once something like this is out there, you can’t ever get it back. It will be part of your life until the day you die or the internet disappears from the face of the Earth. You could be sixty years old and people will still refer back to a stupid video you made when you were eighteen.”

Winter refuses her parents’ offer to buy the services of a “fixer” whose technique is to bury the controversy in new posts and photos so that when anyone searches for Winter, the first thing they see is not related to the post that made her infamous. She refuses and instead uses her spelling bee prize money, originally slated for college, to pay for a service which offers victims of public shaming a five-week program to “overcome their circumstances.” She says she wants to go there because “their goal isn’t just to make you appear better; it’s to make you feel better and be better.”

The novel includes twenty pages worth of stories about different victims of internet shaming, harrowing in the “there but for the grace of God” feeling they produce in the reader. We see Winter practice rehabilitation, redemption, and repentance. She learns to write again by writing apologies and learns that it doesn’t necessarily matter whether she means them as much as it matters that they make someone else feel better. She sees that “some of these people really were bad people….But when the internet responded to every one of us with the same level of judgment and punishment, then it was impossible to distinguish between who really was or wasn’t a true villain. When everything’s a ten, then there’s no point to having a scale.”

Because this is a YA novel, Winter has to learn a way to cope with her new circumstances, and what she learns is that not everyone is going to like her or what she says, and she has to be prepared for that, and prepared to apologize effectively when she’s wrong. Sounds like adulthood to me, whether it’s amplified by the internet or not.

Since I make my living teaching Kenyon students how to teach writing, maybe I shouldn’t call attention to the other thing Winter learns, which is that you can be a writer without going to Kenyon.

The Library Book and Public Library

March 1, 2019

So many people have stories about public libraries that they want to tell that Susan Orlean and Ali Smith have collected them, Orlean in The Library Book and Smith in Public Library and other stories.

I enjoyed both these books, as I have plenty of public library stories. One of them is that I read all of the fattest books at the public library in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, because for a while I was limited to ten books each week and I needed the most reading time possible within that limitation. I remember reading a lot of family sagas, Look Homeward, Angel, War and Peace, and most of Dickens.

I don’t know if my children will have public library stories. I remember a couple of videos they checked out every week for a while–one about reptiles and one about baby animals—but do they remember? Will my children tell the kind of stories many of us older people tell about our experiences in a public library? Will yours?

British author Ali Smith intersperses the stories in her collection with interviews and anecdotes from readers, writers, and librarians. In one interview, the daughter of author Kate Atkinson, Helen Clyne, says that, for her, going to the public library “was a habit, a ritual. You borrowed it, you read it, you brought it back and chose something else, and someone else read whatever you read after and before you. It was communal.”

Since some of the public libraries in the UK are closing, as Smith notes, it’s clear that some of our children will not be able to tell library stories. Smith says that local councils “now call what used to be public libraries ‘community libraries.’ This is an ameliorating way of saying volunteer-run and volunteer-funded. Just in the few weeks that I’ve been ordering and re-editing these twelve stories for this book, twenty-eight libraries across the UK have come under threat of closure or passing to volunteers.” Smith also quotes Richard Popple, who says “it is hard for those who perhaps don’t feel the need to visit their local libraries to understand what a vital service they provide for communities and individuals who do—and those who do are often the most vulnerable.”

Sarah Wood describes one version of what a library should be: “there was a sunken reading space that went down into the floor, a small-scale ampitheatre where we sat, citizens of thought, books open on our knees. Across from us there was a window into the place where adult readers could go and listen to records on a great big semicircular sofa—the librarian, momentarily transformed into DJ, would put the record on a turntable on the librarian’s desk and the people listening would plug in a set of headphones behind them on the sofa to hear it, music for free. Art too: this was also the floor where you could borrow paintings and prints….Downstairs was fiction. Above us were the study carrels where the older children did their homework and all the pupils from different schools met and hung out together. It was exciting….The brand new building brought with it the idea that our local history was important—that books were important, but also that we were too, and that where we lived was, that it had a heritage and a future that mattered.”

Librarian Eve Lacey notes that “the gilt on the edges of books has antiseptic properties, being part gold, and dust-repelling properties. Proper gilding cleans itself.”

Sophie Mayer, who has written about Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s weapons including a library card, says “without public libraries, I would not have known there was a world outside the conservative religious community in which I grew up….IMG_2522I believe libraries are essential for informed and participatory democracy.”

My small-town public library, in fact, has a quotation similar to that one engraved in stone above the entrance.

Susan Orlean focuses on the Los Angeles Public Library, a fire, and the librarians there. Unless you’re emotionally invested in this particular library, it’s possible you’ll occasionally get bogged down in Orlean’s usual plethora of details.

But I identified with Orleans’ library story, as I also grew up with parents whose “Depression-era mentality adhered stubbornly to certain economies, which included not buying books that could be gotten very easily from the library.”

A few of her stories and comments about the fire are interesting, like that volunteers worked to save the books “as if, in this urgent moment, the people of Los Angeles formed a living library. They created, for that short time, a system to protect and pass along shared knowledge, to save what we know for each other, which is what libraries do every day.” After a while, though, her obsession with a fire at a library I’ve never seen got to be too much for me, and I’d put the book down.

When I’d pick it back up again, I’d find some odd detail like that “in Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned” and get interested. Then I’d get bogged down once more in the long sections about the idiosyncrasies of the head librarians at LAPL through the decades.

Buried in these sections, however, were good parts like the one about an early twentieth-century librarian, Charles Lummis, who branded a warning sign on the covers of pseudoscience books and put cards in them:
“He wanted the cards to say, ‘This book is of the worst class that we can possibly keep in the library. We are sorry that you have not any better sense than to read it,’ but he was persuaded to use a more restrained tone. The cards, shaped like bookmarks, said, ‘For Later and More Scientific Treatment of This Subject, Consult _________,’ followed by a blank space for librarians to list better books on the subject.”
Doesn’t it seem that more of these kinds of warnings might have prevented the sorry state of our democracy today? In 1957, rather than referring to books about “positive psychology, occultism, witchcraft, Dianetics, and Nostradamus” with the phrase “the cult of reassurance,” the librarians could have put Lummis-style warning cards into them.

Orlean has a characteristic style, like the three library cards she includes at the beginning of each chapter and the inclusion of details about book shelving (see Magpie Musing for a critique of one detail). Part of her style that didn’t work for me was the physical description of each librarian. I got increasingly irritated by her attempts at synecdoche, which include description of a librarian who was “broad and busty,” a “tender-faced librarian,” one with “a rosebud of a mouth,” and another with “a girlish complexion, a cresting wave of yellowy hair, and an air of impending tragedy.”

And yet. Is there anyone who would read this book who wouldn’t feel the same way Orleans does about trying to throw away a book?
“Many times, I have stood over a trash can, holding a book with a torn cover and a broken binding, and I have hovered, there, dangling the book, and finally, I have let the trash can lid snap shut and I have walked away with the goddamn book—a battered, dog-eared, wounded soldier that has been spared to live another day. The only thing that comes close to this feeling is what I experience when I try to throw out a plant.”

I doubt there are many who would read this book and wouldn’t feel the same way one of the LAPL librarians did about the necessity of reading “as a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a cat sleeps or a dog responds to an invitation to go walking, not from conscience or training, but because they’d rather do it than anything else in the world.”

There can’t be anyone who wouldn’t be at least momentarily diverted by some of the reference questions Orleans lists. My favorite is “which is more evil, grasshoppers or crickets?”

Who wouldn’t want to know that the LAPL loans out musical scores or that one of its nineteenth-century librarians believed that the library should loan “tennis racquets, footballs, ‘indoor games, [and] magic lanterns,” anticipating modern public libraries, where you can sometimes check out a ukulele?

There must be a few other people who wonder, as I do, how on earth Orlean came up with the number 320,000 for the number of public libraries in the world. And there are probably few readers who would disagree that “a library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone.”

Here are some pictures from my public library–a display of fairy-tale-related books and free hand-made bookmarks, the display of new DVDs, one of the shelves of new fiction books, the “rapid read” books, the new audiobooks at the end of the audiobook stack, a display of books with one-word titles, and the Valentine’s Day display in front of the main circulation desk.

Do you have a public library story?

Dear Rachel Maddow

February 27, 2019

I read Dear Rachel Maddow, by Adrienne Kisner, because when I saw it at the library I remembered reading about it at How Useful It Is.

It’s an entirely epistolary novel, which is always fun, especially in a Young Adult novel, where perspective is all. I’ve never watched Rachel Maddow, not because I disagree with her politics but because I don’t watch television (although I will watch excerpts on YouTube, especially SNL openings).

The protagonist is a 17-year-old girl named Brynn. Some of her writing isn’t very good, particularly the part about why her mother hasn’t loved her since her older brother Nick died and the mother remarried. Maybe this is because Brynn’s ideas about why are not the focus of the letter; her perspective on her mother is often related so briefly it feels like caricature: “babies are supposed to be cut off from the mom and then both of them get to be separate people. That didn’t happen with Mom and Nick.”

Other parts are really well-written, especially the letters that Brynn’s teacher Mr. Grimm comments on. I love his teacherly admonitions, like on her description of where she lives as “East Bumblefuck, Pennsyltucky” he asks “what is another way you could describe our rural, economically depressed region?”

The heart of the story is how Brynn becomes politically active at her school, inspired by watching and writing letters to Rachel Maddow. She begins by standing up to the “current SGA vice president and unbearable human being” who confronts her in the cafeteria, asking “does it bother you that presidential authority goes unchecked these days, and that we are basically fighting a third world war and barely even a peep, a peep I tell you, is heard from Congress?”

There’s a part where Brynn asks the question I’ve been wanting to ask since the U.S. midterm elections: “how does no one care?” And the answer she gets, from an older woman who works with her is “because people don’t, Brynn. Not really. Until they do….Caring for caring’s sake isn’t typical. People only start to care when something affects them personally.” When Brynn protests “but this does affect them,” referring to a committee to pick a new school superintendent, the answer is “maybe. But that’s hard to see. Only if something hurts them or makes them sad or pisses them off does it really sink it. And this new superintendent thing seems far removed from their everyday lives….And I know this person could make policies that will make life worse little by little, or even by a lot for students. And then maybe students will complain and say it’s so unfair that somebody somewhere did this. And then, if you’re lucky, maybe they’ll realize that they could have done something but didn’t, so it’s kinda on them.” Brynn comments “that was so…not what I wanted to hear. It was like a bad day on your show, when the bad news piled up.”

When Brynn decides to run for student body president and an ad featuring her as a zombie is aired at her school, she writes to Rachel Maddow about it saying “youth political involvement is not dead, Rachel. It is seriously, seriously, undead.”

Everything is not solved by Brynn’s political involvement. There are plot twists involving her home situation, her friends, her ex, and her new girlfriend, and she doesn’t triumph over every bit of adversity in the end. But she does end by thanking Rachel Maddow “for your optimism and passion. Even if you don’t always feel it, you demonstrate it.”

That’s a good reminder for adults, both young and old.


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