Ursula K. Le Guin’s Blog

2013

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62. A Much-Needed Literary Award

I first learned about the Sartre Prize from “NB,” the reliably enjoyable last page of the London Times Literary Supplement, signed by J.C. The fame of the award, named for the writer who refused the Nobel in 1964, is or anyhow should be growing fast. As J.C. wrote in the November 23, 2012 issue, “So great is the status of the Jean-Paul Sartre Prize for Prize Refusal that writers all over Europe and America are turning down awards in the hope of being nominated for a Sartre.” He adds with modest pride, “The Sartre Prize itself has never been refused.”

Newly shortlisted for the Sartre Prize is Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who turned down a 50,000-Euro poetry award offered by the Hungarian division of PEN. The award is funded in part by the repressive Hungarian Government. Ferlinghetti politely suggested that they use the prize money to set up a fund for “the publication of Hungarian authors whose writings support total freedom of speech.”

I couldn’t help thinking how cool it would have been if Mo Yan had used some of his Nobel Prize money to set up a fund for the publication of Chinese authors whose writings support total freedom of speech. But this seems unlikely.

Sartre’s reason for refusal was consistent with his refusal to join the Legion of Honor and other such organizations and characteristic of the gnarly and counter-suggestible Existentialist. He said, “It isn’t the same thing if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre or if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize winner. A writer must refuse to let himself be turned into an institution.” He was, of course, already an “institution,” but he valued his personal autonomy. (How he reconciled that value with Maoism is not clear to me.) He didn’t let institutions own him, but he did join uprisings, and was arrested for civil disobedience in the street demos supporting the strikes of May 1968. President De Gaulle quickly pardoned him, with the magnificently Gallic observation that “you don’t arrest Voltaire.”

I wish the Sartre Prize for Prize Refusal could have been called the Boris Pasternak Prize for one of my true heroes. But it wouldn’t be appropriate, since Pasternak didn’t exactly choose to refuse his 1958 Nobel. He had to. If he’d tried to go accept it, the Soviet Government would have promptly, enthusiastically arrested him and sent him to eternal silence in a gulag in Siberia.

I refused a prize once. My reasons were mingier than Sartre’s, though not entirely unrelated. It was in the coldest, insanest days of the Cold War, when even the little planet Esseff was politically divided against itself. My novelette “The Diary of the Rose” was awarded the Nebula Prize by the Science Fiction Writers of America. At about the same time, the same organization deprived the Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem of his honorary membership. There was a sizeable contingent of Cold Warrior members who felt that a man who lived behind the Iron Curtain and was rude about American science fiction must be a Commie rat who had no business in the SFWA. They invoked a technicality to deprive him of his membership and insisted on applying it. Lem was a difficult, arrogant, sometimes insufferable man, but a courageous one and a first-rate author, writing with more independence of mind than would seem possible in Poland under the Soviet regime. I was very angry at the injustice of the crass and petty insult offered him by the SFWA. I dropped my membership, and feeling it would be shameless to accept an award for a story about political intolerance from a group that had just displayed political intolerance, took my entry out of Nebula competition shortly before the winners were to be announced. The SFWA called me to plead with me not to withdraw it, since it had, in fact, won. I couldn’t do that. So — with the perfect irony that awaits anybody who strikes a noble pose on high moral ground — my award went to the runner-up: Isaac Asimov, the old chieftain of the Cold Warriors.

What relates my small refusal to Sartre’s big one is the sense that to accept an award from an institution is to be co-opted by, embodied as, the institution. Sartre refused this on general principle, while I acted in specific protest. But I do have sympathy for his distrust of allowing himself to be identified as something other than himself. He felt that the huge label “Success” that the Nobel sticks on an author’s forehead would, as it were, hide his face. His becoming a “Nobelist” would adulterate his authority as Sartre.

Which is, of course, precisely what the commercial machinery of bestsellerdom and prizedom wants: the name as product. The guaranteed imprint of salable Success. Nobel Prize Winner Soandso. Best-Selling Author Thusandsuch. Thirty Weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List Whozit. Jane D. Wonthepulitzer… John Q. MacArthurgenius….

It isn’t what the people who established the awards want them to do or to mean, but it’s how they’re used. As a way to honor a writer, an award has genuine value, but the use of prizes as a marketing ploy by corporate capitalism, and sometimes as a political gimmick by the awarders, has compromised their value. And the more prestigious and valued the prize the more compromised it is.

Still, I’m glad that José Saramago, a much tougher Marxist nut than Sartre, saw fit not to refuse the Nobel prize. He knew nothing, not even Success, could compromise him, and no institution could turn him into itself. His face was his own face to the end. And despite the committee’s many bizarre selections and omissions, the Nobel Prize for Literature retains considerable value, precisely because it is identified with such writers as Pasternak, or Szymborska, or Saramago. It bears at least a glimmer reflected from their faces.

All the same, I think the Sartre Prize for Prize Refusal should be recognised as a valuable and timely award, and what’s more, one pretty safe to remain untainted by exploitation. I wish somebody really contemptible would award me a prize so I could be in the running for a Sartre.

— UKL
7 January 2013

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63. Kidnapped

You know those poor orphans starving in the snow on your doorstep that Google wants to put to work for Corpocracy Inc? Well, the Brits are after them too. Parliament is considering an “enterprise regulatory reform” bill containing extremely permissive provisions concerning “orphan works.”

What is an “orphan work’? The definition is pretty clear: a copyrighted work (most often a book, story, or photograph) for which the “parent” — the author or copyright holder — cannot be located.

Finding a copyright is easy: the Copyright Office has it on file. Finding copyright holders (heirs who don’t know they’re heirs, etc.) can take time. It’s not always quick and easy to identify an orphan as such.

And here’s where the definition is vulnerable to deliberate manipulation and obfuscation. (I like that word, obfuscation — “making dark.”)

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The operative term is cannot be located— which does not mean “hasn’t been found,” or “nobody bothered to look for.”

Increasingly often books are called “orphans” just because nobody is bothering to locate the copyright holder, or even make a copyright search. If stringent requirements for identification aren’t upheld, anyone who wants to exploit the rights to an older work can, after the most cursory search for the copyright holder or no search at all, just declare the book, the story, the photograph “orphaned.”

And if this practice isn’t questioned, they can go ahead without concern for copyright, reproducing and exploiting the so-called “orphan.”

It’s not an orphan at all. It’s been kidnapped.

By now kidnapped works probably far outnumber genuinely orphaned ones. The Google Book Settlement allowed Google to declare books orphaned with little or no pretense of search and then reproduce them busily, steadily, and no doubt profitably. The Internet makes it incredibly easy to do so. The U.S. Copyright Office has generally failed or refused to interfere, leaving the entire onus of proof that the work is protected by copyright to the individual author.

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Now the Brits are trying to legalize this injustice — a dangerous precedent for decisions yet to be made in the U.S. And worse yet, if Parliament passes the bill, many American works published on both sides of the Atlantic will be misidentified as “orphaned,” scanned and put online by British libraries and others without the permission of the digital rights holder.

Once that happens, you might as well kiss your copyright goodbye. Your book has not only been kidnapped, but handed over to the pirates. As Parliament lurches along hand in hand with Blind Pugh and Long John Silver, somebody else will be burying your treasure. Arr, arr. Isn’t that funny?

At this point, most of the organized opposition in the U.K. is coming from photographers, photo licensing agencies, distributors of news photographs. This also happened in the U.S. in 2008, when photographers got together and stopped “orphan works” legislation in Congress.

It’s hard to understand why writers, who are just as directly affected, are hard to stir up on this issue. Maybe we’ve had copyright so long that we thought it was genetic, or something?

What’s happening is that the Corpocracy — first Disney, then Google, to be followed by Amazon and the rest — has been working for over ten years now to dismantle copyright in practice and destroy it in principle — and to get government sanction for doing so.

Copyright Office seems to be paralyzed; the Department of Justice is looking away; the present Congress is hardly likely to protect art or artists against corporate greed. It’s up to us, the artists, the photographers, the writers, to defend our rights.

At this point, I don’t know any organization working to co-ordinate us into an effective movement except the National Writers Union. However you feel about unions in general, if you’re a writer of any kind, you might look into this one. It’s small, it’s active, and it’s on our side. Nobody much else is.

— UKL
21 January 2013

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Here are some useful links:

Two British resistance websites —

Photographers: http://www.stop43.org.uk/

Authors: Authors Rights

Encouraging information here:

British Journal of Photography

In the U.S., the National Writers Union statement opposing the British legislation is at:

Support for the Creative Economy [PDF]

And here is the NWU’s warning about what the British bill can do to American properties. It ain’t pretty.

  1. Violate the obligations of the U.K., pursuant to the Berne Convention, with respect to the rights of authors of works first published in the U.S. and elsewhere outside the U.K.;
  2. Misidentify many works first published in the U.S. and other countries — particularly works simultaneously published in multiple countries, U.K. editions of works previously published in different editions in the U.S., and works first published online on servers in the U.S. — as having been first published in the U.K. and as being  “orphan works”;
  3. Authorize reproduction and use of U.S. and other foreign works without the permission of the author (or other holder of the particular rights being exploited) in ways that interfere with the  “normal commercial exploitation” of rights to those works; and
  4. Impose burdensome “opt out” and/or  “claim” requirements, constituting “formalities” prohibited by the Berne Convention, on foreign authors who do not want our work included or authorized for reproduction or use through “orphan works” or ECL schemes. (The costs which would be imposed by these proposals on authors, whether in the UK or abroad, of searching lists of works to which some of the rights had provisionally been identified as “orphaned”, are entirely omitted from the Impact Assessment prepared by the IPO, even though these costs would manifestly be the largest category of costs imposed by the “orphan works” scheme.)

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64. The Trouble

Annals of Pard V

Cat in Bed
Cat in Bed

I’ve never had a cat before who directly challenged me. I don’t look for much obedience from a cat; the relationship isn’t based on rank or a dominance hierarchy as with dogs, and cats have no guilt and very little shame. I expect a cat to steal food left out on the counter knowing perfectly well that that he’ll be swotted if caught. Greed, and possibly the joy of theft, overrides the slight fear. Stupid human me to leave food out on the counter. I expect a cat who has been scolded or swotted for getting up on the dining table to get up on the dining table and leave little footprints all over it, because he sees no reason to refrain from doing so, when I’m not in the room. When found later, the evidence of the little footprints will have passed the statute of limitations. To make any sense to a cat, retaliation for wrongdoing must be immediate. The cat knows that as well as I do, which is why I expect him to do wrong while I’m not in the room, and don’t expect him to do wrong while I am.

To do wrong under my very eyes strains our relationship. It demands scolding, swotting, shouting, flight, pursuit, commotion. It is a challenge, a deliberate invitation to trouble. And this is where Pard is different from the many and various cats who have companioned me. They were all like me — they wanted to avoid trouble.

Pard wants to make it.

Cats in Bed

Cats in Bed

He isn’t a troublesome cat. His hygiene is impeccable. He is gentle. He never steals food. (To be sure, this is only because he doesn’t recognise anything but certain brands of kibbled catfood and crunchy cat-treats as food. I can leave the pork cutlets on the counter while he’s waiting hungrily for his quarter-cup of dinner kibbles, and he won’t even get up to sniff them. I could put a piece of bacon on top of the kibbles and he would eat them and leave it. I could lay a filet of sole down on him and he would shake it off with contempt and go away.)

He challenges me by doing what he’s forbidden to do. And I guess there really aren’t a lot of things he’s forbidden, besides jumping up on the mantel and knocking off the kachinas.

He isn’t allowed to get on the dining table, but there’s nothing to do there but leave footprints. The mantel, which is a really big jump even for Pard, is the only unprotected display place left in the house for small ornamental things; all the others have found safe havens unreachable even by airborne cats. So jumping up onto the mantel has become his goal, his challenge.

But only if I am in the room.

Lord of All He Surveys

Lord of All He Surveys

He’ll spend all day in the living room and never look at the fireplace, until I come in. A while after we’ve both been there, Pard begins to glance at the mantelpiece. His eyes get rounder and blacker. He wanders carelessly about on a chair-arm (allowed) or side-table (allowed) near the fireplace. He stands up on his hind legs to sniff a lampshade or the top of the firescreen very thoroughly with enormous interest, always a little closer to the mantelpiece. Till, usually when I’m not looking but not quite not looking, he’s airborne, and up on the mantel knocking something off. Then scolding, shouting, flight, pursuit, etc. — Trouble! Mission accomplished.

Recently, there is an added element: the squirt bottle. As soon as he looks at the mantel I pick up the squirt bottle. The first couple of times, when he made ready to jump onto the mantel and I squirted him, he was totally taken aback. He didn’t even associate the squirt with the bottle. He does now. But it merely adds a new flavor, a new spice, to the Trouble. It doesn’t keep him off the mantel.

The Cat with the Handle

The Cat with the Handle

I gave in a couple of days ago and moved all the little kachinas to a haven, leaving only the two big ones and some outstanding rocks. But this morning, while I was doing Downward Dog with my back turned, Pard jumped up onto the mantel and knocked off the lump of Tibetan turquoise, taking a chip out of it when it hit the hearth.

The ensuing Trouble was pretty intense, although I never could get anywhere near close enough to swot him. He knew I was mad. He has been terribly polite ever since, and inclined to fall over and wave his paws in an innocently endearing manner. He’ll go on that way till we’re all in the living room this evening and the need for Trouble arises in him again.

This little cat so deeply shaped by human expectation, the tamest cat I ever had, has a flame of absolute, wilful wildness.

I’m sure some of it’s the boredom factor — a young cat with old people, an indoors cat… But Pard doesn’t have to be an indoor cat. He chooses to.

The catflap is opened for him all through daylight, at his request or at our suggestion. Sometimes he goes out onto the deck, looks down into the garden, birdwatches for a few minutes, and comes back. Or he may go out and turn right around and come back. Or he may say oh, no, thanks, it’s very large out there, and quite cold this time of year, so I think I’ll stand here halfway out the catflap for a while and then back back in. What he doesn’t do is stay out. When the weather warms up and we’re outside too, he will, but not enthusiastically. He’ll go out and go down and eat some of the kind of grass that makes him throw up and come back indoors and throw it up on the rug. That isn’t Trouble-making, it’s just Cat-being.

There is no moral to this story, and no conclusion. Wish me luck with the squirt bottle.

— UKL
27 January 2013

Writing is so exhausting

Writing is so exhausting

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65. Accidental Discovery

The argument for real books against virtual books is often based on the thingness of the real book — the beauty of the binding, the pleasure of handsome design and typesetting, the sensuality of turning a paper page, the pride of ownership. I sympathize with that, but I’m a reader, not a collector — I love my books (and I have lots of them) for what’s in them. Except for a few dear, battered kid’s books that both my mother and I read as children, the physical individuality of a book is pretty secondary to me.

And so, given this priority of the contents, I’ve defended the e-book and e-reading devices as an extension of, not an attack on, The Book — as augmentation, not loss or destruction.

But this piece is about one way e-books do involve a real limitation, a loss. If this appears somewhat inconsistent, consider: what is life without incompatible realities?

It all began (like many novels) with a letter. I hide from fan email and the social media because email for business and with close friends is all or more than I can handle. Sometimes my PO mail is more than I can handle, too, though I always hope to respond. Anyhow, the letter Orion Elenzil wrote me was handwritten on paper, and it was a very nice letter of appreciation. But there was a PS or afterthought that I was particularly struck with. Orion says it’s OK to quote him:

…About traditional paper books compared to E-books… There’s an aspect to traditional books which is lost in even the best electronic reader, which is Accidental Discovery: i’m reading this or that, and leave it laying about the house, and you visit and see it, or you’re perusing my book-shelves to see what i’m up to, and find something which interests you. I’m a technologist, and i worry that this casual, accidental, and as you mention, social means of discovering by talking about books is threatened by devices which need to be explicitly searched in order to find out what they hold.

I answered him right away (by email — he did say he’s a technologist!) I said:

Your ‘minor point’ about books on paper as opposed to ebooks, the quality of Accidental Discovery, seems to me actually a pretty major issue. What it made me think of first was library card catalogues…. The electronic library catalogue has all kinds of uses and virtues, but (at least as far as I can manage to use it) it absolutely lacks Accidental Discovery. Maybe it has a little Planned Discovery, via subject search, but it just can’t provide what the card catalogue did by way of serendipitous blundering into related or totally unrelated books and authors via the drawer of cards you happened to be looking at.
Then of course the library shelf multiplies Accidental Discovery enormously.... My “research method” was to go to the largest library accessible to me, get into the stack where some books about whatever it was were, and blunder around in those shelves pulling off books until I found the ones I needed. I mean, how much can you know from the title? One book on Ancient Roman Sewers will be useless and the one next to it will be a revelation. But riffling through to establish such judgments seems immensely easier to do with an actual bound book than with the page-by-page limitation of a reading device. (Not sure of that, since I still don’t own one, though I’ve played with them — maybe I just don’t know how to e-riffle.)

To this Orion answered,

I think you’ve hit a nail on the head with the process of browsing the stacks of a library, or of a bookstore. I often head into a bookstore without a specific author or type of book in mind, and just walk around looking at titles and covers, or trying out a couple pages in the middle until something catches my eye. or not.

(Of course, of course! — and this activity, browsing, is so important, and so impossible anywhere but in an actual, physical bookstore — the bookstores we’ve lost, because we’ve let ourselves be lured into the pathless jungles of the Amazone…. )

I hold some hope that this organic and somewhat undirected discovery of books may eventually find an analogue in the digital age. I never would have predicted the amazing ways of sharing online we currently have, so I can’t profess to imagine what the e-reader may become in another ten or twenty years. But I absolutely agree with you that the current modes lack the accidental discovery which artifact books have so wonderfully. Altho I confess I’m also criticizing e-readers without having used them.

(Me too — have played with several kinds of e-reader, but haven’t yet felt a need to own one.

(Orion goes on: )

Another minor aspect I enjoy of traditional books which is currently meaningless with their digital offspring is that each book is its own artifact, complete with a small history and story. Many book-lovers would condemn me, but I’m an inveterate marker-of-pages and notes-in-the-margin maker. And it may be a small hubris, but in books I feel a particular connection with, I generally add my own name beneath the author’s on the title page — not as a mark of ownership, but of history. And now that I say it out loud, I realize that perhaps that agrees with your notion that “Reading is a collaboration”.
In any event, I’m positive that reading will remain healthy, and I’m hopeful that e-reading may discover ways to provide these things we enjoy in traditional reading.

I hadn’t even thought about writing-in-books. It’s a subject naturally loathesome to the librarian. And to the kind of collector who encases an unread book in plastic to preserve its virginity. But Orion is right, it’s important.

Underlining whole passages as I used to do, or even worse covering them with neon hiliter, is a lazy student habit that severely defaces a book. But the pencilled exclamation point or question mark, and the “Bullshit!” or “Wow!” or more subtle or cryptic comments in the margin, are only mildly intrusive, and can be enjoyable, adding a lively sense of connection to an earlier reader. A previous owner’s name on the flyleaf or title page gives this same sense of continuity. An old book bought secondhand may have the names of several people who owned the book, and sometimes dates – 1895, 1922, 1944…. This always touches me. I like to add my name and the year, respectfully, to the list.

My beloved friend Roussel Sargent recently gave me a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses printed in 1596 and rebound in vellum in 1604 — a very small, very thick volume, pocket-size, the letterpress still black and clear, imprinted on linen paper that weighs nothing and has worn like iron. For all my lack of the collector’s instinct, I handle that little book with reverence. It is the oldest book I have ever touched, by far. And touch does mean a good deal. So does time.

I know what the contents are, but reading Ovid in this edition would be even slower work for me than reading Latin always is. When I look into it, I’m far more likely to try to puzzle out the writing-in-the-book than the printed text. The margins are full of comments and the close-printed lines are interlineated with translations (mostly into German, or with another Latin word) in various colors of ink, some very faded, and many different handwritings, all tiny and mostly illegible to me. This book has been a scholar’s treasure and perhaps a schoolboy’s torment, it’s been bought and sold and given, lost and found, it’s been jammed into the pockets of greatcoats, thumped about in rucksacks, pored over in student lodgings, it has gathered dust in attics, crossed many waters, and changed hands a hundred times; it contains four hundred years of obscure human histories right along with the two-thousand-year-old words of the poet. Would I prefer it virginal, encased in plastic? Are you crazy?

But the question I can’t answer has to do with content. It’s this: To what extent is the Metamorphoses in e-book form the same book as the one I’ve been describing?

I don’t know.

But thinking about it has made it clearer to me that what there is to a physical book beside its text may be quite important. And it appears that these aspects, these qualities, these intellectual and social accidents, are at present inaccessible to electronic technology: irreproducible.

I hope my generous correspondent Orion is right that we may figure out how to restore human connectivity to the e-book, so that it does not, like so much of what we do on our electronic devices, isolate us more and more deeply, even as we are busier and busier communicating.

— UKL

25 March 2013

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66. The Rehearsal

Left Hand of Darkness rehearsal: Jonathan Walters, Theo Downes Le Guin, UKLSitting in on a rehearsal is a strange experience for the author of the book the play is based on. Words you heard in your mind’s ear forty years ago in a small attic room in the silence of the night are suddenly said aloud by living voices in a bright-lit, chaotic studio. People you thought you’d made up, invented, imagined are there, not imaginary at all — solid, living, breathing. And they speak to each other. Not to you. Not any more.

What exists now is the reality those people build up between them, the stage-reality that is as ungraspable and fleeting as all experience, but more charged than most experience with intense presence, with passion....

...until suddenly it’s over. The scene changes. The play ends.

Or in a rehearsal, the director says, “That was great. Let’s just take it again from where Genly comes in.”

And they do: the reality that vanished appears again, they build it up between them, the doubts, the trust, the misunderstanding, the passion, the pain...

Actors are magicians.

All stage people are magicians, the whole crew, on stage and behind it, working the lights and painting the set and all the rest. They collaborate methodically (ritual must be methodical, because it must be complete) in working magic. And they can do it with remarkably unlikely stuff. No cloaks, no magic wands or eyes of newt or bubbling alembics.

Essentially they do it by limiting space, and moving and speaking within that space to establish and maintain a Secondary Creation.

Watching a rehearsal makes that especially clear. At this point, some weeks before first night, the actors wear jeans and t-shirts. Their ritual space is marked out with strips and bits of tape on the floor. No set; their only props are a couple of ratty benches and plastic bowls. Harsh lights glare steadily down on them. Five feet away from them, people are moving around quietly, eating salad out of a plastic tub, checking a computer screen, scribbling notes. But there, in that limited space, the magic is being worked. It takes place. There another world comes into being. Its name is Winter, or Gethen.

And look! The King is pregnant.

—UKL

22 April 2013

Left Hand of Darkness rehearsal 731

Julie Hammond, Liz Hayden, Allison Tigard, with choreographer Noel Plemmons


Left Hand of Darkness rehearsal 718

Liz Hayden, Julie Hammond


Left Hand of Darkness rehearsal 753

Damian Thompson and Allison Tigard


Left Hand of Darkness rehearsal 767

Director Jonathan Walters with Lorraine Bahr, Jason Rouse, Jeb Pearson

Candid photos by Brian Weaver

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Portland Playhouse & Hand2Mouth Theater present a new stage version of UKL’s The Left Hand of Darkness, 2 May – 9 June 2013.

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67. La Guantanamera

After the Boston Marathon bombing people kept talking about Americans standing together, standing tall. I didn’t understand.

Americans grieving together, bowing down in sorrow together — I could understand that. We needed to mourn together for a celebration of joyful bodily health and strength that ended in horror, mutilation, and death. But standing together? Against what?

There is no enemy. This isn’t a replay of 9/11, an attack that did indeed draw us to stand together, briefly, before we cowered down in the quickly-built bunkers of terror-of-terrorism.

This is much more like a replay of the ever more frequent shooting sprees in colleges, malls, schools by sick men with powerful weapons out to hurt and kill at random. They always have their reasons — wretchedness and hatred disguised as personal, religious, or political reasoning, the circular, self-centered, meaningless “reasons” of insanity.

A nation can stand together against a conspiracy of intelligent fanatics like Al-Qaeda, but against a pair of wretched psychopaths? Us, against two sick kids? The United States, against them?

I know a lot of people can only stand together if they have an enemy to stand against — if they are at war. At the moment, a lot of such people here want that enemy to be Islam. As they have counterparts in Islam who are ready to oblige them, they may well get their wish.

It is not my wish. I have a question, instead. My question is: What do we stand together for?

And here I come up against something that really scares me.

How can I stand with my fellow Americans, “stand tall” as we are exhorted to do, what is the America I am standing up for — when I see our government abandon the principles of its Constitution, the moral consensus of mankind, and our national self-respect, by encouraging and prolonging deliberately cruel treatment of prisoners who have not stood trial and are not allowed to stand trial or seek release?

The Congress and the President are directly, immediately, daily responsible for an ongoing outrage of decency, a travesty of justice, the prison at Guantánamo. The responsibility and the shame for dodging it weigh most heavily on President Obama. He promised to deal with it, and has not done so.

On the contrary, he has embraced the Bush policy of “indefinite detention” of “suspects” — the emprisonment of arbitrarily designated “enemies of the government” without trial. War is always the excuse for this policy, as in the mass internment of our Japanese citizens in the 1940’s. Its use is very dangerous to the health of a democracy, and its prolongation could be fatal.

So I am not standing tall as an American, these days. I am sitting alone with my head bowed down, fighting an awful sadness.

I keep listening to an old song. I don’t know if it helps the sadness or makes it worse. Lots of American kids learned it at summer camp, a song as peaceable as “Kumbayya,” a familiar, yearning tune. But the irony of it now...And the sweetness of the words, their generous spirit, make that irony even harder to bear.

Yo soy un hombre sincero
de donde crecen las palmas
y ante de morirme quiero
echar mis versos del alma

Guantanamera, guajira guantanamera

Con los pobres de la tierra
quiero yo mi suerte echar…

 

I am an honest man
from where the palm trees grow
and before I die I want
to share my soul’s poetry

Girl of Guantánamo, country girl of Guantánamo

With the poor of the earth
I want to share my fate....
~

The words of La Guantanamera are by the great Cuban poet José Martí; José Fernandez Diaz put them to the tune. You can hear old, old Pete Seeger singing it, here; or young Joan Baez; or dozens of other voices, Cuban, American....

Sung by Pete Seeger:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EJ1kZ0yBzg

Sung by Joan Baez:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRTC3cfWfGk

Other relevant links:

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68. Why Your Library May Not Have the E-Book You Want

While most small presses sell all their books freely and happily to libraries, the “Big Five” publishers continue to be terrified by the idea of letting public libraries have their e-books, and to punish libraries for even trying to get their e-books to customers.

The corporations’ confused and panic-driven search for an “acceptable business model” for the library e-book has led to some truly grotesque solutions:

  • HarperCollins rents a library the license to an e-book for 26 uses, after which the license expires and the book goes poof.
  • Hachette sells e-books to libraries at three times the print price for the first year — and one and a half times print price thereafter.
  • Macmillan sells only its Minotaur crime and mystery e-books to libraries, asking $25 apiece — again about three times as much as anybody else has to pay.
  • Random House has raised prices for some of its e-books by 300 percent.
  • Simon and Schuster, which previously refused to sell e-books to libraries at all, is now trying out a pilot program: A library will be able to buy license for any e-book in the S&S catalogue for one year, and each book can be lent any number of times — “so long as it is being used by one borrower at a time.”

Perhaps we should be glad that this experiment is being carried out only in parts of New York City.

People in New York City are tough. They will not mind being followed home from the library by a person in a purple cloak and grey tights, known as S&SMan, who will move into their apartment and stay there as long as the book checked out, watching closely to be sure that nobody else in the family reads it or is even looking over the borrower’s shoulder….

And here are some truly remarkable figures:

In October, 2012, a certain best-selling book sold in print for $15.51.

If you bought the e-book on Amazon, the price was $9.99.

If your public library bought the e-book, they paid $84.00 for it.

So, dear reader, if your library doesn’t have the e-book you’d like to read, please don’t complain to your librarian. Complain to your publisher. Tell him to wake up and get real.

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69. The Diminished Thing

Not wanting to know much about getting old (I don’t mean older, I mean old: late seventies, eighties, beyond) is probably a human survival characteristic. What’s the use of knowing anything about it ahead of time? You’ll find out enough when you get there.

One of the things people often find when they get there is that younger people don’t want to hear about it. So honest conversation concerning geezerhood takes place mostly among geezers.

And when younger people tell old people what old age is, the geezers may not agree, but seldom argue.

I want to argue, just a little.

Robert Frost’s ovenbird asked the operative question: “What to make of a diminished thing?”

Americans believe strongly in positive thinking. Positive thinking is great. It works best when based on a realistic assessment and acceptance of the actual situation. Positive thinking founded on denial may not be so great. (Like, look at Lance Armstrong.)

Everybody who gets old has to assess their ever-changing but seldom improving situation and make of it what they can. I think most old people accept the fact that they’re old — I’ve never heard anybody over eighty say “I’m not old.” And they make the best of it. As the saying goes: Consider the alternative!

A lot of younger people, seeing the reality of old age as entirely negative, see acceptance of age as negative. Wanting to deal with old people in a positive spirit, they’re led to deny old people their reality.

With all good intentions, people say to me, “Oh, you’re not old!”

And the Pope isn’t Catholic.

“You’re only as old as you think you are!”

Now, you don’t honestly think having lived 83 years is a matter of opinion.

“My uncle’s 90 and he walks eight miles a day.”

Lucky Unk, I hope he never meets that old bully Arthur Ritis or his mean wife Sciatica.

“My grandmother lives all by herself and she’s still driving her car at 99!”

Well, hey for Granny, she’s got good genes. She’s a great example — but not one most people are able to imitate.

Old age isn’t a state of mind. It’s an existential situation.

Would you say to a person paralyzed from the waist down, “Oh, you aren’t a cripple! You’re only as paralyzed as you think you are! My cousin broke her back once but she got right over it and now she’s in training for the marathon!”

Spiral

Encouragement by denial, however wellmeaning, backfires. Fear is seldom wise and never kind. Who is it you’re cheering up, anyhow? Is it really the geezer?

To tell me my old age doesn’t exist is to tell me I don’t exist. Erase my age, you erase my life — me.

Of course that’s what a lot of really young people inevitably do. Kids who haven’t lived with geezers don’t know what they are. So it is that old men come to learn the invisibility women learned twenty or thirty years earlier. The kids on the street don’t see you. If they have to see you, it’s often with the indifference, distrust, or animosity animals feel for animals of a different species.

Animals have instinctive codes of etiquette for avoiding or defusing this mindless fear and hostility. Dogs ceremonially smell each others’ anuses, cats ceremonially yowl on the territorial borderline. Human societies provide us with various more elaborate devices. One of the most effective is respect. You don’t like the stranger, but your carefully respectful behavior to him elicits the same from him, thus avoiding the sterile expense of time and blood on aggression and defense.

In less change-oriented societies than ours, a great part of the culture’s useful information, including the rules of behavior, is taught by the elders to the young. One of those rules is, unsurprisingly, a tradition of respect for age.

In our increasingly unstable, future-oriented, technology-driven society, the young are often the ones who show the way, who teach their elders what to do. So who respects whom for what? The geezers are damned if they’re going to kowtow to the twerps — and vice versa.

When there’s no social pressure behind it, respectful behavior becomes a decision, an individual choice. Americans, even when they pay pious lipservice to Judaeo-Christian rules of moral behavior, tend to regard moral behavior as a personal decision, above rules, and often above laws.

This is morally problematic when personal decision is confused with personal opinion. A decision worthy the name is based on observation, factual information, intellectual and ethical judgment. Opinion — that darling of the press, the politician, and the poll — may be based on no information at all. At worst, unchecked by either judgment or moral tradition, personal opinion may reflect nothing but ignorance, jealousy, and fear. (Like, look at Phyllis Schlafly.)

So, if “I decide” — if my opinion is — that living a long time just means getting ugly, weak, useless, and in the way, I waste no respect on old people, just as if my opinon is that all young people are scary, insolent, unreliable, and unteachable, I waste no respect on them.

Respect has often been over-enforced and almost universally misplaced (the poor must respect the rich, all women must respect all men, etc). But when applied in moderation and with judgment, the social requirement of respectful behavior to others, by repressing aggression and requiring self-control, makes room for understanding. It creates a space where appreciation and affection can grow.

Opinion all too often leaves no room for anything but itself.

People whose society doesn’t teach them respect for childhood are lucky if they learn to understand, or value, or even like their own children. Children who aren’t taught respect for old age are likely to fear it, and to discover understanding and affection for old people only by luck, by chance.

I think the tradition of respecting age in itself has some justification. Just coping with daily life, doing stuff that was always so easy you didn’t notice it, gets harder in old age, till it may take real courage to do it at all. Old age generally involves pain and danger and inevitably ends in death. The acceptance of that takes courage. Courage deserves respect.

Spiral

So much for respect. Back to the diminished thing.

Childhood is when you keep gaining, old age is when you keep losing. The Golden Years the PR people keep gloating at us about are golden because that’s the color of the light at sunset.

Of course diminishment isn’t all there is to aging. Far from it. Life out of the rat race, but still in the comfort zone, can give the chance to be in the moment, and bring real peace of mind.

If memory remains sound and the thinking mind retains its vigor, an old intelligence may have extraordinary breadth and depth of understanding. It’s had more time to gather knowledge and more practice in comparison and judgment. No matter if the knowledge is intellectual or practical or emotional, if it concerns alpine ecosystems or the Buddha nature or how to reassure a frightened child: when you meet an old person with that kind of knowledge, if you have the sense of a beansprout you know you’re in a rare and irreproducible presence.

Same goes for old people who keep their skill at any craft or art they’ve worked at for all those years. Practice does make perfect. They know how, they know it all, and beauty flows effortlessly from what they do.

But all such existential enlargements brought by living long are under threat from the lessening of strength and stamina. However well compensated for by intelligent coping mechanisms, small or large breakdowns in one bit of the body or another begin to restrict activity, while the memory is dealing with overload and slippage. Existence in old age is progressively diminished by each of these losses and restrictions. It’s no use saying it isn’t so, because it is so.

It’s no use making a fuss about it, or being afraid of it, either, because nobody can change it.

Yes, I know, we are, at the moment, in America, living longer. Ninety is the new seventy, etc. That’s generally taken to be a good thing.

How good? In what respects?

I recommend studying the ovenbird’s question long and seriously.

There are many answers to it. A lot can be made of a diminished thing, if you work at it. A lot of people (young and old) are working at it.

All I’m asking people who aren’t yet really old is to think about the ovenbird’s question too — and try not to diminish old age itself. Let age be age. Let your old relative or old friend be who they are. Denial serves nothing, no one, no purpose.

Spiral

Please understand, I’m speaking for myself, for my own crabby old age. I may get told off for it by hordes of enraged octogenarians who like being told they’re “spry” and “feisty.” I don’t begrudge the fairy tale to those who want to believe it — and if I live longer than I think I want to, maybe I’ll even come to want to hear it: You’re not old! Nobody’s old. We’re all living happily ever after.

— UKL
10 June 2013

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70. What is Black and White and Orange All Over?

Annals of Pard VI

I was defrosting the freezer, and Pard of course came down with me to survey and re-investigate the basement, which is big and has much to investigate, what with the Pre-Cambrian furnace, and dark corners and odd angles and crowded shelves and storage boxes and picnic baskets and 10-quart boilers and so on, and many spiders, and many spiderwebs. He often comes up from the basement with gluey cobwebs delicately festooning his whiskers and his ears. This time he conducted a prolonged expedition, and when he finally came back upstairs his white muzzle was spotted all over with a shocking color. I thought he’d shoved his face into something sharp and hurt himself. I panicked and got hold of him, and we investigated, and Charles laughed. “It isn’t blood,” he said.

Pard had indeed stuck his head into something or other. Whatever it was, it wasn’t sharp, but it was very rusty.

I tried to wash his face for him with a dishcloth, and he thought I had gone mad. He was civil, but not cooperative, verging on indignant. I wash my own face, thank you! All I succeeded in doing before he got away was spreading the bright reddish spots into a general orange smear all over his jowls and chin. Now he looked like the wrong end of one of those primates with luridly colorful bits of their anatomy. What made it funny of course was that he didn’t know it, and maybe couldn’t know it — do cats even see red-orange? — and if he had known it, wouldn’t care.

He does look at himself in the mirror. I don’t believe any cats have passed an awareness-of-self-image test, as some apes have — for instance, seeing in the mirror a bit of tape stuck to their face, and lifting a hand directly to it to pick it off. But when Pard catches me looking at him in the mirror he often turns his head from that reflected exchange to meet my actual gaze, which impresses me: surely it signifies an understanding of what the mirror image is? Often he sits on the counter in the bathroom beside a mirror that gives him a full-length self-view, and seems to be studying it with calm approbation.

I doubt that merely finding his face had turned orange would change that.

The rust wore off gradually. He is a cleanly fellow and I’m sure washed his face as often as usual, but no oftener. After a day or two there was still a strong yellow tinge around the region of the whisker-roots. Cat’s whiskers are technically called vibrissae, a pretty Latin word hinting at the vibrancy and vibration and bristling of those amazing clusters of sensitivity, that spring like a fountain out of a cat’s muzzle and above its eyes and tell it so much about its world . . . though evidently they don’t always tell the cat not to stick its face into that particular interesting hole, from which it will emerge bright orange.

— UKL
24 June 2013

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71. Pard Pix

Annals of Pard VII

The Placing of the Paws is Particularly Pleasing

The Placing of the Paws is Particularly Pleasing

Spiral
Pigeons Passing?

Pigeons Passing?

Spiral
Pretty Pard Posing with Posies

Pretty Pard Posing with Posies

Spiral
Pink-Petal Peonies, Pink-nose Pard

Pink-Petal Peonies, Pink-nose Pard

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72. The Cat Letters

(obediently transcribed by Elisabeth and Ursula Le Guin)

Although incomplete, these letters are of great interest in revealing much concerning the Five Deliberations.

Though practiced openly and constantly by most cats, the actual nature of the Deliberations has remained obscure to most humans. Frederika’s revelation of them by name and her description of the practice to her correspondent Zorro is an epoch in our understanding of feline thought, and should clarify many mysteries of feline behavior.

At the time these letters were written, Zorro was about twelve, and had been in control of two humans in Portland, Oregon, for many years. Orphaned and abandoned as a kitten, he had had little or no teaching from elders of his kind, and had worked out a code of behavior of his own which was not always entirely satisfactory to himself or others. His epistolary friendship with Frederika was a great boon to him.

The growing bond between him and Opal was less intellectual, but of considerable interest also, particularly as regards their discussions of humping and biting.

Frederika, in middle age, was in full control of a single human, in West Hollywood, California. A somewhat troubling element had recently been introduced into her life in the person of Opal, a completely uneducated young cat, whose presence certainly caused Federika to call upon the spirit and practice of the Deliberations more actively than ever. But it is clear that Frederika was an adept, a true sage, ready to teach any who called upon her for teaching — as Zorro did, though Opal unfortunately did not.

There are no pictures currently available of the three correspondents. Zorro always wore tuxedo. Frederika still dresses in subtle and becoming grey; Opal favors a mixture of rather gaudy colors including orange, white, and black.

The opening letters of the correspondence have been lost. It ended, sadly, with Zorro’s death in 2011, only a few weeks after his last letter to Opal.

First Series — December 2010

Zorro to Opal and Frederika

Dear Opal and Frederika,

I wanted to tell you about the mouse I caught. I have let my humans catch the other mice, under the sink in the kitchen, because the mice have an escape hole there, but the humans have this box trap, and all I have to do is stand at the cabinet door and lash my tail and make my eyes into searchlights until they realise that there is a mouse in there and set the trap for it.

The mouse in the attic study was however more accessible to me and after long strategic planning I caught it by knocking over a wastebasket and a few other things in a prolonged, noise-producing, highly satisfying Chase Scene. I then brought it down to the front bedroom, where, naturally, I released it so it could play with me educationally. It played with me a little bit but then cheated and got down into the furnace grate and disappeared, which is unfair. They watched with great interest, I will say that for them, but I doubt they learned much. How can I teach them how to catch mice without traps if the mouse does not cooperate?

I ate the first mouse I ever caught and part of the second one but then decided that they are far more interesting and valuable educationally.

Wishing you asparagus, calves’ liver, and sufficient ham,

Your Friend at a Distance,

Z

__________

Frederika to Zorro

Dear Zorro,

Here in our big pink building we do not have mice. I have searched quite extensively. This is unfortunate, and I suspect foul play on the part of the humans. Opal clearly does not know what a mouse is; she is very young and ignorant; how is she to learn the basics???

There have however been birds on occasion. I remember with fondness the last, a young crow that I dismembered at leisure in the living room. The human living with me at that time was thoughtful enough to let me take all afternoon at it.* It is a pity Opal was not there at that time, it would have been a fine anatomy lesson.

However there have not been birds of late and so I have entered upon the practice of the Five Deliberations. I was in the preliminary phases when Opal arrived, apparently to stay. This was fortuitous, since her youthful abysmal ignorance and silliness have provided me with much opportunity to intensify my practice of the Second Deliberation.**

I have few complaints. For some reason Opal’s food tastes consistently better than my own, but this situation is easily remedied. Less easy to remedy is the Usual Human’s consistent unwillingness to arise for the 4 AM Snack required by all true Practicants; but I have found a particular spot to scratch on the headboard of the bed which usually effects a response.

When this is inefficacious, I have been known to lick the tip of her nose. There is, of course, no personal affection implied, consistent with the Foundational Deliberation.***

On this windy night I send you all due Crunchy Treats, and a dollop of half-and-half,

Frederika

* (note from Human: this was my last tenant but one, Marianna, who wrote me about it while I was in Spain. She is an ardent vegan. She left the scene in dismay, and made her boyfriend clean it up.)

** Ignoring

*** Reserve

__________

Opal to Zorro:

Grrrrrr, grrrrrr

—Opal

__________

Zorro to Frederika:

Dear Frederika,

I am deep in admiration concerning the crow. I had quite given up on birds since they have these stupid front leg sort of things (even worse than the humans’ “arms”) which they use to go up off into the air with. It is abnormal and unjust.

My mouse used the Furnace Vent Routes and is now on the ground floor, behind the stove. I spent most of the day crouching and lashing my tail at his exit route. I am glad that the humans have set their little trap there so that I can go up to the blue chair and go to sleeep, I have certainly earned it.

I should like to know more of the Deliberations.

I have certain Practices. One of them I think resembles your Headboard Scratching, but it is a little more direct; it consists of Head Scratching. When the Female Human is facing the wrong way in bed (lying on her left side) she needs to be rearranged, so I come and scratch the top of her head (quite gently, barely any claw extrusion at all) until she turns over and faces the correct direction (lying on her right side) so that I can lie down beside her pillow with my butt in her face and go to sleep.

Head Scratching is quite effective. Has never failed yet. You might try it.

Z.

__________

Zorro to Opal:

Dear Opal,

Hssssssssssssssss hsss.

Your Distant Friend,

Zorro

__________

Frederika to Zorro:

Dear Zorro,

Herewith the Five as I have been taught them. I hope that you find them useful.

1. Reserve (The Foundational Deliberation) A host of divergent translations reflect regional and philosophical variations: The Cat that Walks by Himself (Great Britain and former colonies); Self-Sufficiency (North America); Cat Tvam Asi (East Asia); and (among Japanese temple cats) Mu.

2. Ignoring.

3. The Warmth Asana (sometimes expressed as an equation, x = 1/b2, where x is the ambient temperature and b2 the amount of fur exposed to air). The physical calibrations required to maintain equilibrium can be enormously delicate in a mild climate such as that of my home.

4. Placement (Feng Shui). Finding the right place in which to practice, relative to current conditions (topography, temperature, astrological factors, misguided attempts at reading by humans).

5. Sameness. That things should be always the same goes without saying; maintaining Sameness in a world prone to lamentable irregularities that are out of our control (I need only mention the terrible Cat Carrier) is said to be the highest discipline of them all. In a certain sense the first four Deliberations can be considered preliminary to the Fifth.

I wish a satisfying outcome to your labors with the mouse.

— Frederika

__________

Opal to Zorro:

I like playing with human underwear, do you?

— Opal

__________

Zorro to Frederika:

Dear Frederika,

I deeply admire your formulation of the Five Deliberations. It is clear that you have acquired true wisdom. As it is said, Adversity is the Mother of Felinity. I wish you, if Perfect Sameness is unattainable, at least a monotonous Regularity perturbed only by the slightest variations, such as the occasional crow.

The mouse has not evidenced itself recently, so I have retired to the attic furnace grate, which is covered by a carpet which spreads the heat out nicely, thus facilitating the Third Deliberation, and is also near the blue chair where the human sits making those misguided attempts to read from which, by judicious exercise of the Fourth Deliberation, I can often save him.

Your Friend, remotely,

Zorro

__________

Zorro to Opal:

Dear Opal:

No. I like humping fleece things while going oww, wowww, do you?

Z.

__________

Opal to Zorro:

Dear Uncle Zorro,

Right now I am alone in my Private Place because I got mad at Auntie Fredi and said bad things.

She made me mad because she wanted to go on the human’s lap but so did I. This was Not Fair. And then she went up on a piece of furniture that was higher than me and looked down on me all superior the way she does. Her and her Deliberations, phhht. So I went in the middle of the floor and looked away from everybody and made my eyes all greeny and lashed my tail and said grrrr, grrrr, ooowwwwooo.

And then when the human put me in the Private Place I bit her. I am sorry for that part, but sometimes bites come out and have to be bitten.

But now I am feeling better and softer and when the human comes to the door she will bring me a treat because she always does.

What is humping?

—Opal

__________

Frederika to Zorro:

I forgot to mention a refinement to the Fourth Deliberation with which you are doubtless familiar; it concerns computers and tails. With practice, and constant delicate flicking adjustments, it is possible to cover a surprising number of the keys that the human wants to tap upon. This can often result in being invited, even if somewhat ungently, onto the Lap. That is where I currently reside.

—Fredi

P.S. Of course I do not look down on anyone even when I am superior to them. I am Ignoring; but the ignorant do not recognize this.

__________

Zorro to Opal:

Dear Young Opal,

You must not say phhht to your Aunt Fredi. Saying phhht is excessively kittenish and you are not a kitten any more. Consider, for example, that you have a Private Place, in which you may withdraw, or be withdrawn, to practice both the Foundational and the Great Fifth Deliberations at leisure. Kittens have no Private Places except momentarily inside cartons, drawers, cupboards, etc. and then another kitten or two or six always crowds in, rendering Reserve impossible and destroying all hope of Sameness. You are a fortunate young Cat and should behave as such.

I entirely understand and approve of your philosophy of bites. If I had not lost my lower fangs (when a foolish and trusting youth, I was attacked by a viciously unstable small end-table), my own practice of the custom would be even more effective than it is. I favor the wrist, which bleeds most satisfactorily, do you?

As for humping, I feel perhaps you should consult your Aunt on this subject. It concerns gender, about which I find my ideas not as clear as I should like them to be. I know that gender is what divides us into Toms and Queens, but having begun life ( I am quite certain) as a Tom kitten, I do not seem to be a Tom cat, yet am quite certain that I am not an old Queen. Perhaps fleece blankets and shirts do not have the peculiar fascination for you that they have for me, so I shall say no more about humping at this time.

I wish you excellent, crunchy, utterly undeserved treats.

Uncle Zorro

__________

Zorro to Frederika:

Dear Fredi,

Ah what poetry is in your saying: “I am Ignoring, but the ignorant do not recognise this.” I deeply sympathise with your being required to live with a young and ignorant companion. When I had a companion we were both young and ignorant. I bit him all the time. He never bit back, which was annoying, though I now understand it as showing that he was more advanced in the Foundational Deliberation than I. The good die young. Perhaps to you, an advanced Practicant, biting is on the same low order as saying phhht? I hope not, as I still truly enjoy a good lightning bite every now and then. I was glad to find, however, while I was carrying my mouse around, that my control was as good as ever; the mouse was entirely undamaged. And how did the humans receive this careful, thoughtful presentation, when it got up and ran off? With shrieks and lamentation! I shall never understand them.

May the food of Opal taste ever better to the Aunt of Opal.

And if, as I think may be, you are about to go into the House of Exile, may your time in the Horrible Carrier be brief, and may your mastery of all Five Deliberations make your time there pass like the dream of a winter's night.

Remotely,

Zorro

The Second Series of Letters, Jan-Feb 2011

Fredi to Zorro:

Dear Zorro,

There are things I do not understand.

My human is sitting (of which I approve). She has been sitting most of the day (better still). She is working with her tablet that vibrates and emits light and occasionally noises—I know you must know whereof I speak, these tablets seem to accompany most humans—and of course I help her. I keep her lap suitably warm, and when her tension level or my desire to snack rises beyond a certain level, I invoke Sameness distract her and reestablish balance. I am used to her sometimes irritable responses to this and I do not mind them because they always eventually result in my getting what I want.

All of this is well known. The part I do not understand is her consistent failure to understand and appreciate my artistic applications of the Fourth Deliberation tail techniques. Over time I have practiced the artistic tail placements designed to enhance the beauty and usefulness of any work surface, duly adapted to the tablet: Tip Rests on Delete Key; Delicately Brushing Trackpad; and so on.

Today, to honor her for spending such an unusually long time so nicely seated, I invoked the rare and exquisite Full Length Cross Keyboard Adornment. She was utterly unappreciative. Indeed I found myself summarily upon the floor, as if I were a mere kitten. I was quite offended...I wondered whether you had had any similar rebuffs and how you dealt with them.

Fredi

PS now however I am doing it again and she is letting me, by typing gently around and beneath my tail...perhaps progress can be made after all. Persistence and steadfastness are key.

__________

Zorro to Fredi, February 2011:

Dear Fredi,

Some time ago you wrote me a letter, which I apologise for not replying to sooner, concerning your human's odd behaviour in relation to your refined application of Fourth Deliberation Tail Technique.

I should shrug (if I had shoulders to shrug with) and dismiss this as typical human lack of appreciation of many applications of the Fourth Deliberation — such as their objection to one's gracefully sudden Placement between their face and a book or newspaper, their resistance to proper Bed Feng Shui arrangements, etc. — if it did not concern the tail.

I have a great interest in tail management. My tail is one of my best attributes. I carry it rather low, lion style. It is not full and fluffy, of course; I pride myself on my shorthair ancestry. It is very long, very black, very flexible, and I employ it with immense variety and eloquence.

My female has, I am happy to say, a quite admirable admiration of my tail, and distinctly appreciates its rhetorical and ornamental flourishes, as well as some of its subtler Placements, such as the slow draw across the cheek when napping, and the evanescent wrap about the leg when requesting treats.

Obviously, your tail, like mine, is faultless. Therefore I wonder if the problem is with the tablet, rather than with the tail?

The tablet is, I have come to believe, a very evil creature. It is not alive, but it definitely has powers — not crude ones, such as the horrible Vacuum Monster, which destroys one's self-possession by mere roaring and bellowing as it runs about — but subtle powers, to which the humans become deeply in thrall. It absorbs their energies in a strange way, leading them to ignore even Us.

I have found the wisest course to be total avoidance of the tablet. I do not set paw upon it even when it is shut up like a box. I do not attempt to sit upon the female when the tablet is casting its spell of vibrations, lights, and clicking noises on her. If I want something while she is under the tablet spell, I walk around and around her chair, using the delicate and charming evanescent tail wraps I mentioned above, leaning warmly against her legs, purring ostentatiously, looking up sweetly, etc.

If this does not work, and such is the malign power of the tablet, it often doesn't, then I unsheath. I begin to scratch alternately at her pants leg (very lightly) and on the wall next to her (rather loudly). I believe you use this latter technique on the headboard of her bed when she is violating Bed Feng Shui? It is quite effective, is it not? After a while she always hisses and gets up and goes downstairs to serve me my Soupy Supper so that I can ignore it for several hours before I eat it in the middle of the night.

You might try this form of Placement in order to obtain your wishes. But I am so sorry your female does not properly appreciate your tail. It is very sad.

Remotely Yours,

Zorro

__________

Zorro to Opal:

Dear Young Opal,

I don't know why it is, but you bring out something feral in me and so I have been wanting to ask you if you get violent impulses that overwhelm you so that you just go and do them?

The female human was petting my wonderfully thick, dense, silky, warm fur and I was purring away in full observation of the Third and Fifth Deliberations, when like lightning the desire to bite came upon me, and like lightning I bit.

I have only two fangs ever since the table attacked me, but they are extremely effective fangs. It was a forearm slash. She hissed furiously and swatted my elegant, slender backside quite hard. It was almost a cat reflex — but she can't unsheath, so it did no harm. I hissed back at her, leapt off the bed, and departed with dignity, while she was still hissing and bleeding. I felt good about the whole thing. Do you ever do anything like this?

I scarcely want to ask Fredi. I am sure she always observes the Deliberations, and I have a feeling that this behavior is, somehow, not quite in accord with any of them.

Blackly, Your

Uncle Zorro

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73. Walking through the Bottomland

This has been a prime week for unzipping political penises and seeing what they look like in public. In Paris Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been charged with “aggravated pimping,” which is legal French for encouraging, abetting, and exploiting prostitution. In New York Anthony Weiner has been busy sexting again, what a surprise! What a thrill! And — descending from these international heights of public lechery — here in Portland our county chairman and one of his subordinates left an email record of erotico-nepotism that has thoroughly screwed both her career and his.

Strauss-Kahn — I hope the arrogant old man feels his humiliation and understands the reason for it, though I doubt he can. Weiner appears to be far too deeply stupid to know what shame is. As for Jeff Cogen here in Portland, I feel a desolate disappointment, which is what drives me to write this piece.

The most promising local politician we had throws away his personal reputation and his sound career — for what? It doesn’t appear to have been love, but mere self-indulgence encouraged by ambition and a naïve sense of entitlement.

You have to ask, does any degree of power translate in a man’s mind into sexual license? Does giving people responsibility invite them to act irresponsibly?

His playmate, equally promising in her field, apparently felt as entitled to transgression; the tango was definitely a twosome. Women given power don’t often interpret it directly as privilege to fuck where they want — the power is usually less, and they’re likely to pay more, and more immediately, for the privilege. But women do of course use sex as rungs on the ladder of ambition.

Ms Manhas lost her job as soon as the story came out. Mr Cogen, though asked to resign by his fellow commissioners, has not done so. He says he wants to be judged by the law, not by public outcry. As the outcry has been relentlessly amplified by the local newspaper, he has a kind of point there. Portland has just survived a mayor who started out his term by having an affair with an underage intern, lying about it, and getting away with it. At least the county chairman and the health department manager are both adults, and so far, more or less, unperjured.

Maybe he can survive the scandal. Maybe we can have another tainted mayor. And then she, like his honor, will be just a casualty of his career.

But — but — what were they thinking? Did they imagine that emails and textings are secret? That privacy exists?

I guess they’ve been living where Anthony Weiner lives.

I wish the countries where we all live didn’t overlap so largely with that bottomland of imaginary entitlement and sordid, selfish folly.

Sing me a melody, sing me the blues....”

— UKL
29 July 2013

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74. Notes from a Week at a Ranch in the Oregon High Desert

Oregon High Desert rainbowThe house where we stay is on a small cattle ranch, in the valley of a creek that comes energetically down off a mountain, cutting a steep, winding oasis of willows and grass between ridges topped with basalt rimrock walls. Across the creek is the ranch-house under a huge old weeping willow. The eastern ridge rises immediately behind it; immediately behind our house, the western ridge. Level pastures fill the narrow land between; the steep slopes are sagebrush, rabbit-brush, bare dirt, rock. Far up the long valley, most of the ranch stock are still in summer pasture. The nearest town is three miles to the north. Its population this year is 5.

On the First Day

Five swallows sit the near wire.

A fiercely agitated flicker lights on the other wire, then follows its own crackling cry.

Rain hangs in the overcast, heavy above the ridge.

A hen has laid an egg: outbursts of proud contentment. Two roosters crow, competing.

The peacocks make their gallant, melancholy, meowing trumpet-call.

Soon the sun will break above the rimrock of the ridge, an hour after rising.

Flights of blackbirds pass in the cool, shadowed air between the eastern and the western rimrock, dozens at a flight, each flight a sound of many wings, an airy throbbing rush and thrill. The creaking whicker of wind in feather, now and then. Now and then a chirp.

In silence far above them swallows follow the hunt, the least and sweetest predators.

A contrail feathers out white over the eastern ridge.

As my eyes begin to have to look away from the slow intolerable brightening I close them and inside the lids see the long curve of the ridge dark red, the darkest red: above it a band of green, the purest green. Each time I look and close my eyes again, the band of green grows wider, burning clear, unmitigated fire of emerald. Then at its center appears a circle of pale, unearthly blue.

I open my eyes and see the source, the sun, one glance, and look down blinded, humble, to the earth, the dull black lava pavement of the path.

The warmth of the sun is on my face as soon as its light is.

After the tremendous thunderstorm of afternoon, tall shivering towers of rain that swept across the pastures, wind that writhed the great old willow like seaweed in the waves, after all that was over and the quiet dusk was filling up the air between the ridges, the horses got to frisking. The little roan and the three bays nipped and kicked, ran and reared, chest to chest, even Daryll, old paint swayback boss, got into it with the colts a bit. They teased, they galloped across the pastures, hooves drummed that wild music on the ground. They quieted down, drifting off north along the creek. Old paint’s white flank glimmered like fireflies in the willowy dark.

In the night awake I thought of them standing in the wet grass, among the willows, in the night.

I stood on the doorstep in the deep night. Cloud-veils crossed the blazing pavement of the firmament and passed. Above the eastern ridge a shining blur, the Pleiades.

On the Second Night

On the second night all creatures woke, and the sleepless cricket was silent suddenly. The thunder spoke from ridge to ridge, from canyon to canyon, far, then nearer. Darkness split wide open to reveal what it hides. Only for a moment can the eyes of the creatures see the world in that awful light.

On the Third Day

In the afternoon the ravens of the western ridge flew with their children across the air between the ridges, calling in their language full of r’s. The youngest talked a lot, the elders answered briefly. Then all at once there seemed to be five ravens? six? -- no: these were vultures, materialising from the sky, eleven, twelve, nine, seven….. soaring, vanishing, appearing, circling, playing with heights and distances and one another in their marvelous, calm, and never broken silence.

After a while they all drifted off back south towards the mountain, quiet lords of the warm towers of the air.

Walking up the road from Diamond after dinner, we heard way off across the fields the shrill, uncanny chorus, a coyote family. A nighthawk’s twang. Metal rattled loud where a hoof touched it in the effortless leap: the doe flitted off into twilight like a rolling-falling wave. Then, from the old, tall poplars hoarding darkness, voices spoke softly with complete authority. Under cloud, the red sun shone out, sank, was gone. The owls said nothing more. The old trees released their darkness finally.

On the Morning of the Fourth Day

Sunlight fills the open valley half a mile away, but here between the rimrocked ridges I sit in windy shadow; half an hour yet to wait on the lava doorstep, while the rain from yesterday’s thunder-shower drips from gutterless eaves onto my head and book, for the brightness over the dark bulk of the ridge to gather and center into the sun itself.

The big black cattle munch industrious on rain-gift grass just outside the wooden fence around the house. A peacock pulls his poor, slattern tail along through moulting August, pride reduced to sapphire head and rajah’s crest and the brassy, meowing, melancholy jungle cry.

The banty rooster shrills: It-is-a-clarion-call! It-is-a-clarion-call! The big rooster exerts the unjustified superiority of a deeper voice. The hens pay no attention, scattering out, scudding along like sailboats over the grass. Now they begin to chatter, to gather back to the henyard: Gretchen has come out to scatter feed.

The contrail shines where it has each morning, drifting now steadily north and east to where the sun will rise. It slowly passes, iridescent, behind the ridge that darkens as the brightness grows.

It is risen. It is risen in beauty.

The reliable miracle, a couple of minutes later and a little farther south each day.

The lesser miracle, the brief transubstantiation of black lava into glimmering red-violet and blue-green light in my observing and delighted eyes, has occurred, is over. The rough black rock keeps its secret.

The daily hummingbird assaults existence with improbability. He is drawn to my orange tea-mug.

The big black heavy cattle munch and breathe and gaze, each with its following of small black birds. All living things work hard to make their living.

I sit on the rough black steps and try to tell the secret that they keep. But I cannot. They keep it.

In Moult

The peacock walks away

in pace of ceremony: step, and pause:

step, and pause:

a king to coronation, or beheading.

The single remnant of his glory

stripped bare, bone white,

trails behind him in the dirt.

On the Fifth Afternoon

Hundreds of blackbirds gathered in the pastures south of the house, vanishing completely in the tall grass then rising out of it in ripples and billows, or streaming and streaming up into a single tree up under the ridge till its lower branches were blacker with birds than green with leaves then flowing down away from it into the reeds and out across the air in a single, flickering, particulate wave. What is entity?

— UKL
2 September 2013

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75. Doggerel for a Cat

His paws are white, his ears are black.
When he isn’t around I feel the lack.

His purr is loud, his fur is soft.
He always carries his tail aloft.

His gait is easy, his gaze intense.
He wears a tuxedo to all events.

His toes are prickly, his nose is pink.
I like to watch him sit and think.

His breed is Alley, his name is Pard.
Life without him would be hard.

— UKL
7 October 2013

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76. Steens Mountain Region, August 2013

Basin and Range country

This is what a lot of it looks like. It is the northernmost part of the Basin and Range country, high desert, altitude over 4000', annual rainfall under 12" except for Steens Mountain, nearly 10,000 feet, which gets up to 40" as rain and snow.

Knox
Pond

Rainwater and snowmelt comes roaring down the NW side of the mountain as the Donner and Blitzen River and many smaller creeks, spreads out in lakes and marshes in the valley, and stays there. This is Knox Pond. There are a good many ducks and wading birds moseying around in it.

The P-Ranch barn

The P-Ranch barn near Frenchglen. Peter French ran a cattle empire for absentee bosses over the whole area before it began to be homesteaded. His great barns are admirable structures.

The P-Ranch barn interior

Inside the P-Ranch barn — long unused, of course.

Red Crater, in the Diamond Lava Beds

Red Crater, in the Diamond Lava Beds, a state park, site of many recent small but fierce volcanic eruptions. This was one of them.

Red Crater

I am standing on the edge of Red Crater, shooting across one corner of it to the high point. The person on the skyline gives some sense of the scale.

Malheur Maar

Malheur Maar, the end of the road in the Diamond Lava Beds. The tiny lake inside the crater always has a pair of ducks living on it. A memorably strange and silent place.

Ranch Outbuilding

I photograph this old ranch outbuilding every year. It’s a little more decrepit every time, but not much more.

Rimrock

Taken from the front steps of the ranch house where I sit every morning to watch the sun come up. That butte with its rimrock edge is one wall of the narrow valley. This picture was taken at evening, with the sinking sun throwing the shadow of the similar butte behind the house onto this one.

Ranchwork

Work on the ranch.

— UKL
21 October 2013

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77. Annals of Pard VIII
Autumn 2013

Pard Regards the Jungle

21. Pard Regards the Jungle Out the Window

Pard Surveys the World

22. Pard Surveys the World from Above

20-Pard-Fresh-Water-76830020_500w

20. Pard Prefers his Water Fresh

Cat in the bathtub

24. Help, police, 911! There is a mad cat in the bathtub!

— UKL
21 October 2013

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78. Blurbery

After the sixteenth request last month to blurb a book, I lost count. They kept coming; there must have been about thirty in the month of October. Five of them came in the form of the novel itself arriving unsolicited in my postbox with a cover letter from the author or editor. The others are letters, mail or email, describing the book and requesting me to read and blurb it. They all express admiration of my work, and most seem to be familiar with it, though some sound as if their familiarity was limited to my name.

Is something wrong here?

Am I not doing my duty by my fellow writers? Should I have read a novel every day last month and blurbed each one as the shatteringly brilliant gut-wrenchingly thrilling replacement for Game of Thrones/Girl with the Whatsit Tattoo/War and Peace?

If I did, what good would it do?

#

As you know, Jim, commercial publishing is collapsing into the production of bestsellers by the publishing subsidiaries of international corporations, who focus their PR on books expected to sell big & quick. And as newspapers and other traditional carriers of book reviews also collapse, reviewing dwindles into Kirkus, bestseller lists, informed or uninformed blogs, and amateur online ‘interactivity’ such as meaningless ‘likes’ or the ‘reviews’ at amazon dot com, much of which is mere self-promotion.

But what can authors do, if their publishers won’t do PR for them — or won’t even publish them, so they have to self-publish — what can they do but self-promote?

The how-to-sell-yourself guidebooks tell you all about the wondrous results of shamelessness. Uh-huh. Boasting works, for a while. Then it hits resistance. Self-praise is always rightly suspect. A crowd of people all shouting I Am The Greatest! at each other? Useless, boring. . . . Hence the frantic search for the blurb.

A blurb-seeker of even middling intelligence won’t approach bestseller celebrities, knowing the request will be simply dumped or brushed off by a staff-person employed to dump or brush off. But many writers consider giving a fellow writer a blurb as part of their job if they can do it honestly; and a moderately successful author, having no dump-and-brush-off staff, may be approachable.

So the self-published author hopefully makes a list of useful established authors and writes them blurb-me letters. And even the author who has found a publisher may discover that the days when the editor wrote the blurb-me letters are gone: the publisher now expects, demands, that the author write them. It’s all part of the prevailing idea that authors should sell themselves while publishers do more important things.

The trouble is, these days, that any moderately successful author who ever blurbed a book is at this very moment being approached by other authors and probably some editors — and not two or three of them a month, the way it was ten years ago, but many, many, and from all sides — like a lone impala on whom are converging a pack of wild dogs, a horde of hyenas, a pride of lions, three leopards, two aardwolves, and a leopard in a pear tree.

This is not a workable PR system. This is no way to publicise or sell books.

While standards of publication, reviewing, and advertising on the Internet remain incoherent, and while corporate publishers refuse to spend money to publish or publicise anything but the safest bets, we’re supposed to pretend that authorial self-promotion and the relentless inter-exploitation of writers for blurbs can maintain the whole business of literature?

Well, it can’t.

Meanwhile, this impala wishes say to every author and editor and aardvark who has sent her a book to blurb or a please-blurb letter this month — and all those who will send her their book or their please-blurb letter in coming months — Thank you! I am honored by your confidence in me and very sorry I cannot reply in any way but I have urgent business about thirty miles away across the Veldt right now, goodbye!

— UKL
4 November 2013

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79. TGAN

A question from New Bookends: “Where is the great American novel by a woman?” got an interesting answer from the Pakistani novelist Mohsid Hamed.

Click here for New York Times article

I like a lot of what Mr Hamed says. But there’s something coy and coercive about the question itself that made me want to charge into the bullring, head down and horns forward.* I’d answer it with a question: Where is the great American novel by anybody?

And I’d answer that: Who cares?

I think this is pretty much what Mr Hamid says more politely, when he says that art

is bigger than notions of black or white, male or female, American or non. Human beings don’t necessarily exist inside of (or correspond to) the neat racial, gendered or national boxes into which we often unthinkingly place them. It’s a mistake to ask literature to reinforce such structures. Literature tends to crack them. Literature is where we free ourselves.

Three cheers and Amen to that.

But I want to add this note: To me, the keystone of the phrase “the great American novel” is not the word “American,” but the word “great.”

Greatness, in the sense of outstanding or unique accomplishment, is a cryptogendered word. In ordinary usage and common understanding, “a great American” means a great American man, “a great writer” means a great male writer. To re-gender the word, it must modify a feminine noun (“a great American woman,” “a great woman writer”). To de-gender it, it must be used in a locution such as “great Americans/writers, both men and women…” Greatness in the abstract, in general, is still thought of as the province of men.

The writer who sets out to write the great American novel must see himself as a free citizen of that province, competing on equal ground with other writers, living and dead, for a glittering prize, a unique honor. His career is a contest, a battle, with victory over other men as its goal. (He is unlikely to think much about women as competitors.) Only in this view of the writer as a fully privileged male, a warrior, literature as a tournament, greatness as the defeat of others, can the idea of “the” great American novel exist.

That’s a good deal to swallow, these days, for most writers over fourteen. I’ll bet the whole notion of “the great American novel” is nothing like as common and meaningful an idea among authors as it is among readers, fans, PR people, reviewers, those who don’t read but know authors by name as celebrities, and people who need something to blog about.

~

Now this may get me told off by women who value competitiveness and feel the problem with women is that they think they shouldn’t or can’t compete, but I’ll say it all the same. It makes perfect sense to me that I’ve never heard a woman writer say she intended, or wanted, to write the great American novel.

Tell you true, I’ve never heard a woman writer say the phrase “the great American novel” without a sort of snort.

Whatever the virtues of competitiveness, women are still deeply trained by society to be cautious about laying claim to greatness greater than the greatness of men. As you know, Jim, a woman who competes successfully with men in a field men consider theirs by right risks being punished for it. Literature is a field a great many men consider theirs by right. Virginia Woolf committed successful competition in that field. She barely escaped the first and most effective punishment — omission from the literary canon after her death. Yet eighty or ninety years later charges of snobbery and invalidism are still used to discredit and diminish her. Marcel Proust’s limitations and his neuroticism were at least as notable as hers. But that Proust needed not only a room of his own, but a corklined one, is taken as proof he was a genius. That Woolf heard the birds singing in Greek shows only that she was a sick woman.

So, as long as men need to “be reflected at twice their natural size,” a woman writer knows that open competition with them is dangerous. Even if she wants to write the, or a, great American novel, she’s unlikely to announce (as male writers do from time to time) that she plans to or has written it. And if she feels she deserves a Pulitzer or Booker or Nobel, or anyhow wouldn’t mind having one, she knows most literary awards are weighted so heavily in favor of men that the social efforts involved in most major awards, the networking and careful self-presentation, are a great expense for an unlikely return.

But risk avoidance isn’t all there is to it. Because competition for primacy, for literary supremacy, doesn’t seem as glamorously possible for women as it does for men, the whole idea of singular greatness — of there being one great anything — may not have the hold on a woman’s imagination that it has on a man’s. The knights in the lists have to believe the prize can be won and is worth winning. Those relegated to the preliminary jousts and the sidelines can see more clearly how arbitrary the judgment of championship is, and can question the value of the glittering prize.

Who wants “The” Great American Novel, anyhow? PR people. People who believe that bestsellers are better than other books because they sell better than other books and that the prize-winning book is the best book because it won the prize. Tired teachers, timid teachers, lazy students who’d like one text to read instead of the many, many great and greatly complex books that make up literature.

Art is not a horse race. Literature is not the Olympics. The hell with The Great American Novel. We have all the great novels we need right now — and right now some man or woman is writing a new one we won’t know we needed till we read it.

— UKL
25 November 2013


* In the 1920’s, on a great Peruvian hacienda with a private bullring, my parents watched matadors-in-training fight cows. The full ritual was performed, except that injury to the animal was avoided, and it did not end in a kill. It was the best training, my parents were told: after las vacas bravas, bulls were easy. An angry bull goes for the matador’s cape, an angry cow goes for the matador.

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80. Kid’s Letters

People sometimes look surprised when I say that I love to get fan letters from children. I’m surprised that they’re surprised.

I get some very lovable letters from kids under ten who write me on their own, mostly with a little parental input. They often describe themselves as “Your Hugest Fan,” which makes me imagine them as towering amiably over the Empire State Building. But most of the letters come from school classes that read the Catwings books. I try to answer these letters at least by thanking every child by name. I can’t usually do much more than that.

Some are problematic: the teacher has told the kids to “write an author,” making the assignment a requirement without regard for the students’ feelings or capabilities — or mine. One desperate ten-year-old forced to write the author told me: “I have read the cover. it is prety good.” What am I to say to him? His teacher put both him and me on the spot and left us there. Not fair.

Frequently teachers tell the students to tell the author what their favorite part of the book is and to ask a question. The favorite part is fine, the kid can always fake it; but asking a question is pointless unless the student really has one. It’s also inconsiderate, raising the impossible expectation that a working author can write back with answers to twenty-five or thirty different questions, even if most of them are variations on two or three standard themes.

When teachers let the kids write whatever they want, if they want to write anything, it works. The questions are real, though some of them would stump the Sphinx. “Why do the catwings have wings?” — “Why did you ever write books?” — “I want to know how you make some of the words on the cover slanted.” “My cat Boo is nine. I am ten. How old is your cat? Is it fair to catch mice?” And there are interesting criticisms. Kids are forthright, both positively and negatively; their comments tell me what interests and what disturbs them. “Did James ever get better from the Owl?” — “I hate Mrs Jane Tabby she made her kitens go away from hom.”

The class mailings I enjoy most are those where the teacher has encouraged the kids to draw their own pictures of scenes in the book, or to write sequels and continuations of the adventures of the Catwings.

Catwings 5” and “Catwings 6” on this website, posted quite a while back, are examples of an one approach to this: the teacher has guided/collaborated with the students in making up the story, and has chosen the pictures to illustrate it. This is an admirable exercise in teamwork on an artistic project, and the result is charming. Adult control, however, inevitably tames the wild unpredictability of stories and pictures that come straight from each child’s imagination. Such illustrations, stories, and booklets give me almost unalloyed delight.

The occasional alloy is in the now inevitable stories that imitate electronic games, a more alarming instance of adult control. In these, the Catwings go through “a portal” into the middle of an incoherent adventure involving battles and the slaughter of enemies, monsters, etc. by the million. Evidently this is the only story the child knows. It’s scary to see a mind trapped in an endless repetition of violent acts without meaning or resolution, only escalation to keep the stimulus going. So far this kind of thing has come only from boys, which may be, in its way, a hopeful sign. I remember hearing my next-older brother in 1937 making up and acting out his own adventure stories in his room — shouts of defiance, muffled thuds, cries of “Get him! Get him!” and machine-gun fire. My brother came through all this mayhem as a quite unviolent adult. But the games of instantly-rewarded destruction, in which the characters and action are readymade “action figures” and the only goal is “winning,” are designed to be addictive, and therefore may be hard to outgrow or replace. Compelled into an endless, meaningless feedback loop, the imagination is starved and sterilized.

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As for the joy I get from the stories and booklets, a large part of it is in seeing that so many kids are perfectly willing to write a book (the book may be about fifty words long). They are confident about doing it and about illustrating it. They take obvious pleasure in giving it chapters, and a Table of Contents, and a cover, and a dedication. And at the end, they all write The End with a proud flourish. They should be proud. Their teacher is proud of them. I am proud of them. I hope their family is proud of them. To have written a book is a very cool thing, when you are six or eight or ten years old. It leads to other cool things, such as fearless reading. Why would anybody who’s written a book be afraid of reading one?

As an experienced connoisseur, I can say the best letters and books by kids are entirely hand made. A computer may make writing easier, but that’s not always an advantage: ease induces haste and glibness. From the visual point of view, the print-out, with all idiosyncratic characters blanded into a standard font, is drably neat, while the artisanal script is full of vitality. Computer spell-checking takes all the flavor out of the non-prescriptive, creative spelling that can give great delight to a reader. In printout, nobody tells me what their favrit pert of the book is, or their favroit prt, or faevit palrt, or favf pont. In printout, nobody asks me wi did you disid to writ cat wigs? And there are no splendid final salutations, such as “Sensrle,” which had me stumped, until “San serly” and “Sihnserly”gave me the clue. Or “Yours trully,” also spelled “chrule.” Or, frequently, echoing young Jane Austen, “Your freind.” Or the occasional totally mysterious farewells — “mth frum Derik.” — “Fsrwey, Anna.”

Frswey, brave teachers, brave children! (And thank you for the quotations!)

mth frum Ursula.
9 December 2013

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