When people say, “I’ve told you fifty times,”
They mean to scold, and very often do.
When poets say, “I’ve written fifty rhymes,”
They make you dread that they’ll recite them, too.

Grateful I saw it

Not surprisingly, my daughters are all voracious readers—the eldest in particular. Reading is usually a solitary activity, but she still likes me to read to her, just like I used to before she learned to read for herself. Recently, I read The Wizard of Oz to her, which was intriguing, because I had never read it before. I had of course seen the movie several times, but never read the book. It’s different. Not better, not worse, just different. It reads far more like a standard fairy tale, where things happen for no apparent reason, and the only goal is to keep a child’s mind entertained for a while. The movie adheres more to the conventions of cinema, with an overriding narrative arc that trims away any episodes that do not directly advance the plot. There’s also no singing in the book!

More recently, I picked up Flowers for Algernon. I intended to read it to my daughter, but quickly realized she’d have to read it for herself to fully appreciate Charlie’s progression. The story is told in the first-person, from Charlie’s perspective, so the language (and grammar and spelling) are crude in the beginning, but quickly advance to an elevated diction and complicated style, and this has to be experienced first-hand. I tried to read along, as it were, staying slightly ahead of her, but I soon find myself catching up. She finished the book before I did (well, she’s got more time to read than I do). To be honest, I couldn’t remember whether I’d ever read the book, and after I started, it was apparent that I never did (in fact, if I’d been more familiar with the book, I might’ve held off, as some of the content is not really suited for a 10-year-old). I think I saw the movie as a kid, but now, I’m not even sure of that. I remember a specific scene—which, it turns out, is not even in the book—and now I don’t recall whether I saw the whole movie or just saw the ad a few times before it aired on TV, back in the days of the 4:00 afternoon special. But wow! I have to say, it is a brilliant book, and really quite devastating for anyone who values the life of the mind. It derides scholarly elitism, and the deification of knowledge as the greatest human good. And yet, it ultimately cannot propose any worthwhile alternative—certainly not the anti-intellectualism of the bakery crew, or even the bohemian iconoclasm of the free-spirited (but essentially empty) artist. Indeed, Charlie’s ultimate epiphany comes not through intellectual mastery, but through physical and emotional connection to another person in the face of inexorable entropy, the universal forces of space and time working to pull us and everything else apart.

Charlie is disgruntled to think that the lead researcher did not consider him to be human or alive before the surgery that ended his retarded state; but in a sense, the surgery was a birth, and the subsequent growth and decay of his mental faculties mirror the same arc that everyone must endure. He understands that his mind will deteriorate, much the way we all understand that we will die, and nothing we do can change that. There’s an element of Greek tragedy here, and part of the tragedy comes from sharing his realization that time is limited and life unfair. Who hasn’t felt the drive (especially upon reaching a certain age) to squeeze every drop from every minute, not knowing how many we have left? But even that invites conflict—between the desire to do something meaningful and enduring, and the desire to spend as much time as possible with those who will miss us most when we’re gone. And is any of it even worth it, after all? Is Charlie any better off in the end, or is he perhaps even worse, given his intimations of paradise lost? (Significantly, Charlie picks up Milton’s poem as his mind deteriorates, but can’t make heads or tails of it.) We all know where all of this is heading, and yet somehow, we go on.

Even now, I can’t read the final diary entry without crying, particularly this:

If you ever reed this Miss Kinnian dont be sorry for me. Im glad I got a second chanse in life like you said to be smart because I lerned alot of things that I never even new were in this werld and Im grateful I saw it all even for a littel bit.

This is what it comes down to. On the one hand, it’s easy to believe, as Silenus told Midas, that it is better not have been born at all. On the other hand, I feel, like Charlie, grateful to have seen it all, even for a little bit.

Holiday thoughts…

That time of year again—we drag a dead tree into our living room, string lights from the gutters, sit down by a cozy fire with a mug of mulled wine and contemplate the age-old question:

Where did Jesus get a Y chromosome?

LA Lit

Apparently, many people are unaware that the city of Los Angeles has a Department of Cultural Affairs. One of the duties of the DCA is to administer a grant program for working artists living in the city. These grants provide a sizable sum of money: $10,000. For the past three years, I have applied, and every year I get the same response: No grants will be given in the literary arts category because the agency did not receive enough applications. This year is the first time, however, that they provided the magic number: three.

Yes, in all of Los Angeles, there are not three writers (screenwriters are not eligible) willing to fill out the (admittedly onerous) paperwork for a shot at ten grand and the cultural caché of a City of Los Angeles (COLA) grant for the cv. There are, of course, some minimum requirements—for example, writers must provide a documented publication record going back at least 15 years.

OK, so that precludes young emerging writers, as well as the “performance poets,” who might not publish at all. And on the other end, established writers ensconced in the local universities might not feel it is appropriate for them to apply (not that they exist in such abundance). But are there really so few “midcareer” writers in this city? I’m forced to conclude that my assessment of this city’s literary landscape remains accurate: there is probably a community for stand-up poets and nontraditional composers, and the universities do provide a cloistered home for a handful of academic poets—but anyone who does not fall within those groups is going to have a lonely time of it indeed.

What Rhymes with Zero Gravity?

Here’s an idea I can get behind:

Feel free to nominate me. If chosen, I would totally go.

Actually, the idea is not new. As one of my nanotech friends explained:

There is some cultural precedent on “sending a poet into space.” In the landmark movie “Contact” (story by Carl Sagan, 1997), the plot is Earth’s first knowledge of the existence of other intelligent beings in the universe and how to respond. Ultimately, Earth sends a physicist played by Jodie Foster into the wormhole that flings her through the Universe to the star Vega where she is to have a meeting. During the travel, she sees the beauty of the universe, and the writers just make her repeatedly mumble, the obvious, “that it is so beautiful…” The repeated statements are followed by her line, “they should have sent a poet.” I have always felt that the writers got it right.