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Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me

March 4, 2018

While putting off writing the talk I’m supposed to give on March 15, I read Andrew Santella’s book Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me. This is a book I recommend for the pleasure of the observations and connections, not because you’ll find any specific remedies for your procrastination habits. I received an advance copy from the publisher, Dey Street Books, because I’m kind of acquainted with the author through my friendship with his wife (although I’ve never met him in person). Now that I’ve read this charming little book, I wish I was better acquainted with him; he sounds like a fun person to have a drink with in New Orleans or London while avoiding whatever pressing business might have originally taken us there.

The first chapter is about the most common reason for procrastination that I know of– perfectionism. Santella relates the story of Darwin’s protracted study of barnacles during the twenty years following his groundbreaking work on natural selection “because Darwin, having made one of the great leaps of intellectual history, did something strange. He dropped the matter.” And as we all know, “there was always one more experiment to run, one more resource to check. And even when he did publish, he insisted on calling his epochal book [The Origin of Species] ‘an abstract,’ as if to apologize in advance should anyone find it incomplete.” With this story, Santella introduces what he calls “one of the most basic rules of procrastination: ‘Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.’” Certainly almost everyone does this (and all writers, including me, confess to it, as Santella points out). His research, he says, “turned up the same figures again and again: 20 percent of us are chronic procrastinators; a third of all American undergraduates call themselves severe procrastinators; 100 minutes of every workday are dithered away by workers.”

The little jokes along the way kept me reading, like when Santella says that going to talk to the world’s foremost authority on procrastination “about my love affair with procrastination was from the beginning fraught with difficulty, like scheduling an appointment with the family physician to discuss your plan to smoke an additional two packs a day.” Or when he observes, like Walker Percy’s hero in The Last Gentleman, Will Barrett, discovers, that “choice can also be a burden that weighs heavily” and concludes that “a to-do list is a menu, and in the depths of procrastination, what I really want is for the waiter to tell me what to order.”

The many observations about the sometimes-beneficial effects of procrastination also kept me going, like that one of the members of the Lichtenbergian Society (named in honor of an 18th-century thinker who “never seemed able to focus his energies”) succeeded in writing a chapter of the Tom Jones-esque novel their namesake had planned, one that “not only imitated Fielding’s ornate Georgian prose, but also worked in lyrics from “It’s Not Unusual” by the other Tom Jones, the Welsh pop star.” That’s exactly the kind of quality content that keeps me browsing the internet when I should be writing.

Of course, then I found a silly image on a friend’s FB page and then had to write a parody of one verse of the song “I feel you, Johanna” from Sweeney Todd while putting off writing this review: 28660765_2081018382173441_7484589965412601816_n

 

I peel you, banana
I peel you
do they think that skin can hide you?
even now you’re in my fingers
I am in the peel beside you
buried sweetly in your yellow flesh
banana…

 

In one of the final chapters of Soon, Santella connects a story about Frank Lloyd Wright’s procrastination in designing Fallingwater to his subsequent commission to design the Guggenheim museum in New York City, where the exhibition space is, famously, along a spiral ramp most of the size of the entire building. “For Wright,” he says, “the spiral was an image of aspiration and transcendence. On the other hand, the ramp at the Guggenheim works just as well in the other direction. It winds down; it dwindles. Either way the path is roundabout, like the epic hero’s (or like water going down a drain.) The procrastinator’s path is never a beeline, either. You turn away from one thing and toward another, and then back again a few more times. You make only gradual progress. You trust that knowledge can be won and desire satisfied by not seeking either.”

If you have something important to do, you’ll want to go out and get a copy of this book and read it instead. It won’t focus your mind on the task at hand, but will furnish your imagination with lots of interesting ideas, maybe even one that you need to pursue immediately.

 

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North of Santa Monica

February 22, 2018

I’ve been traveling, as I usually do in February. The great thing is that it gets me out of cold and colorless Ohio. The less great thing is that I get exposed to germs from all over the country.

IMG_1098Ron had a meeting in Santa Monica, CA so I flew out there to do some sightseeing. As I emerged from the gate at LAX, I almost literally ran into an old friend waiting on a different flight in the same terminal, which was amazing to us both. On Friday afternoon, when Ron came to meet me on the Santa Monica pier, we gazed at the Pacific, sat outside at a restaurant, and wandered from the pier back along the beach towards our hotel. We saw people doing incredible feats of strength along one stretch of beach and got so interested we had to sit for a while and watch people practicing how to balance and walk on a rope (there was more than one rope).

IMG_1128We’d been to the art museum and seen the La Brea tar pits on a previous trip, so on this trip we drove over the Palisades, through Venice Beach (we saw the canals), down to Sunset Boulevard, through Hollywood and Laurel Canyon (where Robert Heinlein once lived), and up to Mulholland drive. We stopped and looked at some of the stars and handprints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater and had our photo taken on the stairway in front of the theater where the Oscars ceremony is held.

We saw orange trees and houses with really big doors. In fact, we saw the neighborhood where Steve Martin lived when he made the movie LA Story, with its regularly-spaced palm trees and sprinkler-green lawns.

Here’s a poem that describes this part of the country, by Carter Revard:

North of Santa Monica

It’s midnight in a drizzling fog
on Sunset Avenue and we are walking
through the scent of orange blossoms and past
a white camellia blown down or flung by someone
onto rainblack asphalt waiting
for the gray Mercedes sedan to run over
and smash its petals and leave us walking in
the smell of Diesel exhaust with
orange-blossom bouquet.

Where the next blue morning
and the gray Pacific meet
as the Palisades fall away
two sparrowhawks are beating
their tapered wings in place, watching
for jay or chewink to stray too far
from their thorny scrub to get back—
and the female suddenly towers,
her wings half-close and she stoops like
a dropping dagger, but down
the steep slope she rockets past them and turns
again into updraft to the clifftops to hover—
as the jay peers out through thorns,
and the lines of white surf whisper in.

IMG_1185Ron flew back to Ohio on Sunday, while a friend and I spent the day in LAX waiting on a flight to Hawaii (our Hawaiian Airlines flight was scheduled to leave at 10 am, but they finally put us on a Delta flight that left at 5:30 pm). It rained hard the evening we arrived and some of the next day, but after that it was beautiful for Waikiki beach, snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, and a whale-watching boat ride (during which we didn’t see any whales, so we got a coupon to go back—I think this is an excellent reason to return).

IMG_1207The friend and I flew back on Thursday night and Friday, arriving in time to get a night’s sleep before my symphony concert on Saturday. Then I got in a week of work before all four of us—Ron, Walker and I from Ohio and Eleanor from North Carolina—flew to Missouri for Ron’s mother’s birthday celebration. She turned 81 (and got to wear a sombrero).

Now we are home again, here to stay for a while. I’m hoping I can get my stopped-up ears sorted out and my conference paper written before my next trip.

 

Reign of the Fallen

February 20, 2018

Reign of the Fallen, by Sarah Glenn March, is about Odessa and her partner Evander, necromancers who work for the King of Karthia, a King who has been ruling while dead for many years now in what he regards as a perfect and unchanging kingdom.

When Evander is killed by a “Shade,” one of the monstrous dead whose skin has been exposed, Odessa and her new partner, Evander’s sister Meredy, must find out who is behind the plot to make the dead appear fearsome so the Karthian people will try to stop the necromancers from raising any more dead.

I enjoyed the offhand way Odessa talks about necromancy—on the very first page she observes that “King Wylding always likes a sea view when we necromancers bring him back to life.”

Much of how necromancy works in this world is described briefly and early on, in a paragraph on page five:
“Dead princes and princesses, deceased dukes and their wives, and of course, Her Majesty. All brought back by necromancers so that those who know Karthia best can continue to run it the way they always have, each one wearing a dark shroud for the protection of living and Dead alike. If a living person were to see even a sliver of a Dead one’s flesh, the Dead person would become a Shade—a monster notoriously difficult to kill.”

There is a price for bringing the dead back to life, in this world:
“Entering the realm of death demands life….Death’s touch might mean you won’t bear children. Or it might mean that any seed planted by your hand will never grow. Or that blight will strike your fields. Or you might never be able to heal from sickness, or wounds.”
Even the necromancers eventually pay a price:
Necromancers like Evander and me can walk through the Deadlands without a cost, but not many realize the price we must pay later. When we die, our spirits never reach the Deadlands. We can raise the dead time and again, but no one will be able to give us a second chance at life.”

Odessa’s grief over Evander’s death is the focus of much of the story, making her question everything she thought was true about her job. She thinks of Evander saying “what we do—brings hope” and asserts that “our magic is love triumphing over death” but she also admits that “there’s no denying our magic can be deadly.” As well-delineated as her stages of grief are, the author lost me for a minute when Odessa declares “it should have been me who was decimated by that Shade” (since the word “decimated” means to reduce by ten–as in to kill off a proportion of an army–not to eliminate).

Odessa eventually figures out the mystery, which turns out to be fairly straightforward, as one of the royal heirs is trying to stir up trouble in order to convince the people that “the necromancers’ magic is a dark magic. A corruption of the natural order. The Dead belong in the Deadlands. And Karthia belongs to the living!”

Along the way she has to confront her own uncomfortable feelings about the risks of necromancy:
“None of the Dead want to become Shades and hurt the loved ones who sacrifice so much to bring them back, but…accidents happen. Accidents that could be prevented if the Dead stayed where they belong. If I quit doing the one thing I’ve trained most of my life to do.”

I like the twists–on young adult romance, with Odessa falling in love with another girl after the death of the boy she loved, and with the evils of necromancy revealed in traditional terms but with an emphasis on its influence on progress, rather than on a magician’s disproportionate use of dark magic.

 

A Decade of Necromancy Never Paying (“never? well, hardly ever”)

February 3, 2018

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Books with necromancy . . . on my radar from February 3, 2008 until today.

In honor of a decade of what started out as–at least mostly–silliness, I am using my extensive list of books in which necromancy doesn’t pay as the basis for a survey of books (and stories) which feature the reanimation of dead bodies following the 1818 publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I’ll be delivering a talk on my survey at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts on March 15.

So please let me know if you’ve read anything that’s not on my list, particularly if it’s in what I sometimes call (after Gilbert and Sullivan’s captain of the Pinafore) the “what never? well, hardly ever” category (on the list I’ve called this section “fun with necromancy, reanimation, and resurrection”).

 

Daughter of Smoke & Bone Series

January 29, 2018

Acting on a hot tip I got from a reader about necromancy in the Laini Taylor series that begins with Daughter of Smoke and Bone, continues with Days of Blood and Starlight, and ends with Dreams of Gods and Monsters, I thoroughly enjoyed not only a long and well-told tale but one of the few direct references to Frankenstein I’ve found in books about the literal reanimation of dead bodies (I’m always looking for more, so please comment if you know a title that’s not already on my list of books in which necromancy never pays).

Even the first sentence of the first book surprised and delighted me, reading this in January:
“Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day. It seems like just another Monday, innocent but for its essential Mondayness, not to mention its Januaryness. It was cold, and it was dark….”

I have to admit that I was not initially charmed by the appearance of what seemed to be a teenaged main character with the strange name of “Karou,” but the story won me over almost immediately, first by rhyming the second syllable of her name with Roo so I could at least pronounce it in my head, second by revealing that she was on her way to art school and already a high school graduate, and third by introducing me to the characters who turn out to be her family by showing me the sketches she draws of them. They are fantastical beasts, and when her friend Zuzana asks how she gets the ideas for these sketches, we are let in on the first of Karou’s secrets, although like her human friend, we don’t quite believe it at first:
“’How do you make this stuff up, maniac?” Zuzana asked, all jealous wonderment.
‘Who says I do? I keep telling you, it’s all real.’
‘Uh-huh. And your hair grows out of your head that color, too.’
‘What? It totally does,’ said Karou, passing a long blue strand through her fingers.
‘Right.’
Karou shrugged and gathered her hair back in a messy coil, stabbing a paintbrush through it to secure it at the nape of her neck. In fact, her hair did grow out of her head that color, pure as ultramarine straight from the paint tube, but that was a truth she told with a certain wry smile, as if she were being absurd. Over the years she’d found out that was all it took, that lazy smile, and she could tell the truth without risk of being believed. It was easier than keeping track of lies, and so it became part of who she was: Karou with her wry smile and crazy imagination.”

There’s a scene in my favorite TV show, Supernatural, when an author calls one of his fans and tells her that he hasn’t been writing fiction, that “it’s all real.” Her response is “I knew it!” That’s what I thought of when I found that Karou’s blue hair and monster family are real.

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The world-building is good, from the very beginning. Even though the monsters are real,
“It wasn’t like in the storybooks. No witches lurked at crossroads disguised as crones, waiting to reward travelers who shared their bread. Genies didn’t burst from lamps, and talking fish didn’t bargain for their lives. In all the world, there was only one place humans could get wishes: Brimstone’s shop. And there was only one currency he accepted. It wasn’t gold, or riddles, or kindness, or any other fairy-tale nonsense, and no, it wasn’t souls, either. It was weirder than any of that.
It was teeth.”

It’s not until halfway through the first book that we begin to find out what Brimstone does with the teeth, and then we learn, with Karou, how he uses them to bring soldiers back from the dead so they can fight again another day.
“Brimstone was a resurrectionist.
He didn’t breathe life back into the torn bodies of the battle-slain; he made bodies. This was the magic wrought in the cathedral under the earth. Out of the merest relics—teeth—Brimstone conjured new bodies in which to sleeve the souls of slain warriors. In this way, the chimaera army held up, year after year, against the superior might of the angels.”

We find out that although Karous looks human in her present form, she is a resurrected chimaera, and her people are at war with the seraph people in a war-torn parallel world called Eretz. All through the first book, Karou has been meeting up with and falling in love with Akiva, who turns out to be a seraph. So their love story is set against a Montague vs Capulet situation in the first book, continues through the second, and is finally consummated at the end of the third.

The second book focuses on what Karou has to do as she takes over Brimstone’s job as the resurrectionist, and how Akiva and her human friends Zuzana and Mik help her. It’s Zuzana who says to her:
“’Holy hell, Karou. You’re making living things. You’re freaking Frankenstein!’
Karou laughed and shook her head. ‘No, I’m not.’ She’d had ample time to consider and discard that comparison. ‘The whole point with Frankenstein is where the soul comes from.’ If a human created ‘life,’ there could be no soul, only a poor benighted monster with no place in the world—or heaven or hell, either, if you were concerned about that, which Karou was not. ‘I have the souls already.’ She pointed to the pile of thuribles. ‘I’m just making the bodies.’”

In the third book, Karou and Akiva manage to bring an end to the war between chimaera and seraph. She says to him
“We have plenty of dead between us, but the way we act, you’d think they were corpses hanging on to our ankles, rather than souls freed to the elements….They’re gone, they can’t be hurt anymore, but we drag their memory around with us, doing our worst in their name, like it’s what they’d want, for us to avenge them? I can’t speak for all the dead, but I know it’s not what I wanted for you, when I died. And I know it’s not what Brimstone wanted for me, or for Eretz.”

There are lots of interesting characters and stories and sacrifices, including how a chimaera called Ziri wore a chimaera general’s body in order to turn the tide of the war and how Eliza, the decendant of a seraph called Elazael, passes on knowledge about the universe to prevent its destruction. There’s a lot about love and war; one of my favorite parts is when magical beings come to kill Akiva because he’s been unknowingly misusing magic, but when they arrive, invisible, they pause because “he smiled as though joy itself had just cornered him in the dark,” thinking it is Karou appearing behind him.

There are a number of conclusions to the tale. At the end of the third book, when Karou and Akiva finally get to the part where they “held on to each other and didn’t let go,” we’re told:
“It was not a happy ending, but a happy middle—at last, after so many fraught beginnings. Their story would be long. Much would be written of them, some of it in verse, some sung, and some in plain prose, in volumes to be penned for the archives of cities not yet built. Against Karou’s express wish, none of it would be dull.”

An easy and fun read for winter nights, this series is full of surprises and delights.

 

The Lies of Locke Lamora

January 21, 2018

A paperback copy of The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch, was the perfect airplane book for me over the holidays. A complicated crime caper, it was absorbing enough and long enough (719 pages) to keep me involved without the danger that I’d run out of book before the flights were done. I liked it so much I’ve procured a copy of the sequel for my next flight.

We meet the character who calls himself “Locke Lamora” as an orphaned child in a country called Camorr. Locke has proved himself too clever to work for the “Thiefmaker” and is being sold up the chain of very organized crime in this extremely brutal world. His story is told in chapters that alternate between what happened when he first joined the group of thieves with honor who call themselves the “Gentlemen Bastards” and what is happening as they have one of their biggest marks wriggling on the hook.

Locke is both sympathetic and admirable because he makes room for himself and those he loves in a world dominated by the rich and callous. He excels at playing various roles in order to extract money from the rich and unprincipled among the upper classes of Camorr. Readers are told details that the people he mingles with wouldn’t suspect, like that “Locke didn’t find it particularly easy to eat lunch while watching a dozen swimming men being pulled apart by a Jereshti devilfish, but he decided that his master merchant of Emberlain had probably seen worse, in his many imaginary sea voyages, and he kept his true feelings far from his face.”

One of the most delicious moments is when Locke, playing the role of one of an Imperial security branch called the “Midnighters,” breaks into the home of his current mark in order to warn him about…his own theft-in-process. Locke asks the mark to play along, explaining that it’s been impossible to catch the thieves because the other noble people who were robbed have been too embarrassed to admit what happened. He explains:
“Her ladyship the Dona Rosalina de Marre lost ten thousand crowns four years ago, in exchange for titles to upriver orchards that don’t exist….Don and Dona Feluccia lost twice as much two years ago. They thought they were financing a coup in Talisham that would have made the city a family estate….Last year…Don Javarriz paid fifteen thousand full crowns to a soothsayer who claimed to be able to restore the old man’s firstborn to life.”
You’d think the promise of necromancy would be a clue, wouldn’t you? But the mark, a lord called Salvara, is completely taken in.

Some of the seeming digressions, like an explanation of the results of burning “wraithstone,” on living creatures, turn out to be more important than readers suspect, at first. It’s more than just further evidence of the brutality of this society that results in us over-hearing Locke being told that “once, in the time of the Therin Throne, the process was used to punish criminals, but it has been centuries since any civilized Therin city-state allowed the use of Wraithstone on men and women. A society that still hangs children for petty theft and feeds prisoners to sea-creatures finds the results too disquieting to bear.”

Locke faces down other thieves, magicians, and all the assembled nobles of his society, although not without his own losses along the way.

The worldbuilding is detailed and interesting, revealing more than is needed for this particular story. There are tantalizing hints about an earlier society called the Eldren who left behind mysterious buildings filled with mysterious substances like “Elderglass” which is “proof against all human arts.”

And the cleverness of the story extends to humor, like at the end of a tense scene where one of the characters we care about seems to be in danger from a fencing teacher, who then turns around and informs him that
“those prancing little pants-wetters come here to learn the colorful and gentlemanly art of fencing, with its many sporting limitations and its proscriptions against dishonorable engagements.
You, on the other hand…you are going to learn how to kill men with a sword.’”

Readers get to learn all the complicated secrets and intrigues of Locke’s schemes, except for one final secret which Locke whispers to his friend Jean at the end, but no one else gets to hear.

There is a sequel, but this book has an absolutely smashing and satisfying ending all by itself, and my bet is that we don’t get to learn Locke’s final secret in the next one, either.

The Women’s March

January 19, 2018

I’ve organized an anniversary event for our weekly demonstration, Signs on the Square, on Saturday, January 20. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year. I’m not sure if I can find my pussy hat, but I’ve had some help designing banners that say “Reform Congress” and I will hold a sign asking my (Republican) congressman why he’s gone 345 days without a town hall.Banners for Signs on the Square - Reform Congress

The Women’s March
by Philip Schultz

So many mothers are here, daughters and granddaughters.
Mine’s been dead for nineteen years but somehow
managed to come. I’m seeing her everywhere,
in the pleased-with-itself smile of the little girl
riding her father’s shoulders, holding a sign
announcing girl power and the beginning of the
Women’s Century, in the don’t-mess-with-me look
of the much-pierced young woman in black
who appears to have finally found her cadence,
in the excited green/gray eyes of the old woman
in a wheelchair being pushed along at quite a clip
by, I assume, her grandson, who looks absolutely
mesmerized. And just ahead is the forceful stride
of the black drummer banging away for all she is
and wants to be, using everything she has to make
a point about strength and willfulness and sacrifice
that maybe only women have the right to make,
having made all of us, shared themselves so completely.
A point about going too far and not far enough,
about time, and the pain it brings, and yes, here I am,
older than I ever intended to be, enjoying the ringing
in my ears, remembering being lifted into the air
by my mother, trembling with joy, as she enfolded
me into the hospitable wings of her peasant apron.
Yes, she’s here, marching with all the others, all of whom
understand what’s being asked of them, one more time.

Every Saturday for the past year it’s been one more time.

Here is the start of my letter to the editor of the local newspaper, asking everyone in the area who feels like the past year hasn’t been life as usual to come out for our demonstration this week:
How did you feel last year at this time, on the eve of the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States and the Women’s March on Washington? Apprehensive? Angry? Triumphant? And how do you feel now, after a year of legislation? Has what you were angry or triumphant about come to pass?

How about you—how do you feel now?

 

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