Monday, July 25, 2016

On "Where Are All the Women" by David Morgan O'Connor (1522 words) ***

There is dread in this story, the kind of dread that happens in foreign places where you don't really know the landscape or the language and you only sort of know what's going on. And you kind of suspect that something worse may in fact have happened or be happening. Read the story here at Great American Lit Mag.

On "The Human Zoo" by Desmond Morris ****

Morris's premise is an interesting one--that animals in zoos suffer from loneliness and deprivation and act out in unwholesome ways that do not occur in nature. So, too, man is housed in a zoo. It's called a city. As such, we have murder, thievery, and so on--actions you would see nowhere in nature.

Our natural environment is one of small tribes, where we hunt and gather. There are maybe fifty of us to twenty square miles. Instead, we have supertribes--cities where we don't know our neighbors and we're piled on top of each other. Yet somehow we thrive and survive. How? Because cities also foster creativity in ways that subsistence living does not. It's a constant fight between our desire for smaller tribes (hence, religion, sports clubs, civil wars) and the power that comes with larger tribes (hence, demigogs, dictatorships).

Morris writes from an evolutionary anthropologists perspective, believing that man has for most of existence been akin to an ape. While I don't subscribe to this view, it sets up an intriguing line of argument. (My view is that man is created and that the banding together into cities did not occur thousands of years after man's evolution but rather within hundreds if not tens of years after man's creation. We are social creatures. We see this desire to band even in the story of the Tower of Babel, which takes place not long after man is almost completely banished from earth. So to me the city is not unnatural. Spending time in the country is likely to reveal as odd a set of behaviors and sometimes depravities as any city might. Rather, it is cultural moires, fostered best in smaller towns--tribes, I suppose, in Morris's view [so maybe he isn't far off the mark]--but also evident in some Asian cultures, in some religions, and in tightknit families, that create conformity and a relatively smaller scale of "immoral" behavior.)

Morris's foray into specific behaviors created by city living dwells chiefly on the subject of status. In tribes, people vie for status, but in super-tribes this vying becomes something much more dangerous, pumped up on steroids, if you will, because of the size of the group. The first form that this competition takes is one based on authority and power. People look for a dominant leader--a king, a dictator. And all people want to be this leader. Morris spends much time comparing symbols of dominance among babboons to those among humans to make his point. And then he gets into the subject of its modern manifestations in the city: cliques, materialism, murder, and suicide. Because not everyone can be top dog, we split into smaller groups--hobbyists, generations, classes, workers, etc.--that we might manage to dominate: to be the big fish in the small pond. But this isn't always satisfactory either, and so we sometimes pretend to be something we aren't, which is the source of consumerism. A lower-class person mimics a high-class person by buying goods he or she can't afford or by buying cheap ripoffs that look like the higher-class goods (diamond necklaces, or fake diamond necklaces, instead of beads). As a result, folk art is pushed aside in favor of manufactured imitations. (Interesting, fifty years later, folk art and DIY culture is pushed the fore in some ways as an example of leisure and class--one has time to make a beaded necklace, instead of working!) Likewise, people commit violent acts against less powerful creatures, be they animals, children, family, or themselves. It is community standards that keep people from killing others, which then causes them to turn that violence against themselves. Suicide rates are higher in cities than in the country, and they are higher during times of peace than during times of war (when violence against others in condoned). Here, then, Morris says, is one result of our city, our human zoo: violence and consumerism to show status within the tribe.

The next means by which status is shown has to do with sex. Again, Morris rehearses a set of rules: why people have sex--to procreate, to enjoy the physical simulation, to pair up, to be relieved of stress or boredom. He makes his comparisons to apes and other animals, who often show off their penises to maters and who use mating as a means to show their dominance or submission to one another. Men display their genitals as well, as we see in society through the use of various phallic symbols, often used as a means of insulting others (demonstrating dominance). Status is further demonstrated by sex through the accumulation of large numbers of partners (harems, serial monogamy) and through violent acts like rape. The need to pair up, bred into us from evolution, is slow to change, however, and interferes with promiscuity. (The arguments here seem forged around men showing dominance, as if it is men who are chiefly or solely the ones seeking status.) How sex as a status symbol is tied into the city is not entirely clear to me, other than that the number of available partners and the ease of demonstrating status is increased.

In the next chapter Morris turns his attention to in-groups and out-groups and how they are established. An in-group is unified; an out-group is that which the in-group unifies against. Absence of an out-group usually means the in-group turns against itself, resulting in civil war. We establish what is out usually by easily delineated physically differences: skin color, shape of eyes, language. The possibility for war is increased via city living because people have land--rather than being nomads--to defend, and the tribes they defend are now supertribes, contributing to the size of the out-group and in-group and to the interaction these two will have (they can't just wander off, because there's insufficient extra land to allow that). (In nature, we defend self, family, and tribe. In the city, we defend possessions and supertribe as well.) Specialization means that some people are devoted to warmaking in and of itself and that leaders don't have to fight and risk their own lives to wage war, resulting, again, in even more wars. Furthermore, the seeking of status, frustrated in such supertribes, finds home is violence against out-groups, even as the desire to cooperate with those in the in-group encourages such violence and warring. Morris completes the chapter by making various dire comments on the population explosion and how that is going to exacerbate the situation (if only we could all go back to small hunter-gatherer tribes on huge ranges).

Next, Morris writes about imprinting--how certain good or bad experiences can have undue effects on us and on animals. Ducklings reared with ony members of their own sex might only try to mate with other members of their own sex later in life; peacocks raised with monkeys might come to think they are monkeys; and so on. Humans, caged off from one another in a city--socially ostracized--might well forge odd behaviors too, such as sexual fetishes (caused by having focusing on some inanimate object during first sexual encounters, be it a shoe or a leather glove or underwear) and even a desire for pets (which are made to mimic babies). My issue here is that the social alienation that Morris writes of would not necessarily be solved in small hunter-gatherer groups. A city is a place of large social gathering; that some don't take advantage, that they stay cooped up with their small, immediate family to escape the evils around them, doesn't mean that being raised alone, within a small family unit, in the middle of nowhere would change experiences--they're still socially isolated. At this point, I felt as if Morris's claims were getting less and less defensable.

Morris returns to form with his chapter on stimuli. Like animals in zoos, people in cities generally lack for stimuli (or are occasionally overstimulated). Whereas humans used to have to eak out an existence hunting and gathering just enough to eat, now most of their needs are supplied in a relatively short period of time. The excess time leftover leads to boredom and a need to find other means of stimulation. Ways to find such stimulation include (1) making problems to solve where there were none, (2) overreacting to mundane tasks, (3) creating new things to do, (4) making much out of less stimulating activities, and (5) magnifying selected items. For those who are overstimulated, they can blot out incoming sensations. An example of the latter might be taking certain kinds of drugs or sleeping excessively. Examples of the other strategies include crime and adultery (1); overeating and gossip (2); playing games, looking at and making artwork, listening to and making music, writing and reading books (3); masturbation (4); and new fashions that emphasize different sexual parts of the body (5). Number 2 actually seems a good result of city life to me. Morris's contention with regard to fashion, which seems something of a detour, though intriguing, is that women's fashion focuses on exaggerating a rotating selection of errogenous zones; men's fashion, by contrast, among modernists, has tended to emphasize how leisurely a person is (thus, we borrow our clothes from various sports--and as those become commonplace, we find another sport to borrow from). While Morris's arguments here seem to make somewhat more sense, he doesn't always keep his examples to the city, which belies his point. Ironically, for instance, one of the examples he gives of making much of less-than-normal stimulation is nothing a city person would have opportunity nor, in most cases, temptation or desire to participate in: bestiality. Such an example rather makes his larger point seem more tendentious, for if country living leads to such actions, then the issue is not lack of stimulus caused by the city. Rather, the issue becomes one of modern life and living, but here too the argument might not be so strong, for a lack of leisure time does not necessarily equate to a lack of depravity. Busy people tend not to do as many bad things out of boredom, but people with fewer resources still have drives to fulfill that might lead them to steal or do other things frowned upon by larger society. The issue than is not city or country, but the degree to which a society maintains social control. A close tribe or family will exert more pressure on an individual's lifestyle than will a society (or lack thereof) that allows for more individual freedom of choice. But that, of course, is the tradeoff, for both individualism and groupthink come with their own advantages and disadvantages.

In Morris's final chapter, he turns to education and issues attendant with it. He notes that people tend to be most innovative out of two needs: (1) panic or scarcity; and (2) security. In the former, troubles become so overwhelming that people are motivated to find new ways to do something. In the latter, people are so provided for that they find new things to do out of a desire to fill time and to explore. It's the middle ground that tends to lack for innovation--where people are eeking out a living but are neither secure enough to explore nor so poor as to have to explore. Most of human existence fit in this middle ground, but modern man fits in the latter. That need to explore, to be curious, is taken up by childlike adults, who do odd things either because they rebel against constraints set on them as kids or because they continue in the curious lifestyle their parents afforded them as kids. Elders in supertribes tend to want to squash innovation, but instead they should encourage it. In a sense then, Morris ends his discussion on the human zoo with a call for, not a return to hunting and gathering, but for more urbanization, more change, more moves away from our evolutionary beginnings.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

On “Zilkowski's Theorem” by Karl Iagnemma (7438 words) *****

“Zilkowski's Theorem” is about a man who is in such love with a woman that he essentially sacrifices his relationship, his reputation, and his career for her--even though the man she loves is the narrator's former roommate and friend. Watching this happen--and trying to figure out why (even as the man himself tries to figure out why)--is the great pleasure of the story. Why does "love" cause us to do such crazy things? Read the story here at Zoetrope.

On "On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction" by Karl Iagnemma ****

Iagnemma is a deserving winner of multiple prizes. I came to his collection blind, however--and was in for quite a treat. His writing, especially in the first half of the collection, is of a nature that I was fully entranced, hanging on the beauty of the sentences even as the plots themselves unfolded. How does a writer write so well? Iagnemma does more than just tell a good story; he rolls it out like a fine piece of art that feels as if it has weight and importance without being so heavy as to seem ponderous.

The opening/title story is about math--or about how logic interacts with our understanding of relationships, which I believe is essentially nill. The lead character is a former student in love with the daughter of his former advisor, who is in turn in love with an undergrad. The daughter does not want the weight of a relationship; the narrator wants to have the daughter for himself. Why this need to possess things? Why not just enjoy?

"The Phrenologist's Dream" focuses on a nineteenth-century scientist who has great doubts about his career. He travels the country studying women's skulls in order to ascertain the levels at which women can love, and yet he knows that his science is likely quackery, as he can find no real patterns. Enter Sarah, a bald woman on trip to reunite with her husband and who is also something of a scoundrel.

Both these opening stories involve women unwilling to commit to a relationship, which led me to believe that perhaps this theme might run throughout the collection, but the next story, "Zilkowski's Theorem," does not involve such a character and begins to take the collection in new directions.

“The Confessional Approach” takes a break from the math-heavy backround that forges part of the first three stories. This one involves a couple who make mannequins deciding how ethical it is to sell those mannequins to someone who wishes merely to use them for target practice.

"The Indian Agent" simulates the journal of a man sent to Michigan to broker good will and piece between white settlers and a small band of "peaceful" Indians. Alas, distrust between the two and white greed creates a situation the agent begins to lose control of and patience with. Here, a romantic relationship is not the center of the story but rather its lack--the isolation that comes with being alone in a foreign land.

"Kingdom, Order, Species" returns to the science and math world, as a mediocre academic stalks the author of her favorite field guide. Here, we have a romance story of sorts, complete with a happy ending of sorts and, thus, different in tone than most of the other stories.

"The Ore Miner's Wife" deals with a woman whose miner husband takes an interest in science. This interest leads her to believe that perhaps he is cheating on her.

A similar theme creeps into the last story, "Children of Hunger," which recounts the experiments of William Beaumont on an injured man, experiments that allow him to see in to a man's digestive track. So obsessed does he become--so in love with science--that he sacrifices the love of his wife.

And that, I suppose, is what the collection is about, that intersection between science and love, logic and feeling, as if somehow we might be able to quantify love in some mathematical sense.

Friday, July 8, 2016

On "Rebecca" by Donald Barthelme (1361 words) ****

Not sure if much of this story adds up, but it's an interesting one, an exploration of friendship--the way that jealousy and intimacy and worries about inferiority can sneak into a relationship and make it hurt and last. Read the story here.

On "The Image of the City" by Kevin Lynch ***

Kevin Lynch is concerned not so much with the actual physical substance of the city but rather with the image that that substance conveys. Our ideas of a city, he says, are mixed with memories and meanings. In this sense, his thinking is not unlike that of David Kolb in Sprawling Places, which argues suburbs need to be seen as areas of greater complexity than they typically are via the memories and meanings attached to locales. Rather than mourn chain stores taking over an area, we can see them as having connections to the local. In a sense, this is true. One landmark that I think of in Victoria, British Columbia, is McDonald's. Why? It's two stories and features a huge chandelier. Probably, it was something grander at one time, but it has become a McDonald's--and a grand one at that. I remember eating at it one night with my friend Mike and a fascinating but troubled gal he liked named Diane. Or take the city of my birth, Pasadena. There, I remember well a string of fast-food restaurants along North Lake Avenue (eating at them; working at one; walking to/by them with my friend Tim, who lived closeby). They're nothing special, and yet they've been there from my birth to the present day, longer than many other truly "local" venues. They are landmarks of their own, even if not cherished and loved in the same way. Their very endurance has aided in their becoming part of my image of the city.

Lynch focuses, however, on downtown cores--and most specifically of three cities: Boston, Jersey City, and Los Angeles. The purpose of looking at our image of the city is to see how we might better plan and build cities as we move forward. What do people remember? How do they organize their viewpoints? How do they structure the city in their heads so that they can move around it?

Boston is chosen because of its age and historicity. It offers people many, many landmarks. And indeed, Lynch finds that people have a relatively easy time placing several districts within downtown. Still, there are portions of the area studied that remain amorphous in most people's views, largely centered around larger highways that cut off foot traffic. The relative irregularity of the streets, however, also means that people have difficulty "shaping" areas like the Boston Commons.

Jersey city is chosen because of its seeming disrepair. It's a town on the way to somewhere else--either New York City or Newark. And the views local people have of the city seem to confirm this. Nothing much stands out. There are not many landmarks, many places on must see--other than perhaps looking across the river to the skyline of New York City. People organize their city by street names and shopping districts that they visit regularly.

Los Angeles is something of a go-between. It is chosen because of its newness. It features more landmarks than Jersey City but less historicity. People's views of it are somewhat amorphous but slightly more definite than that of Jersey City. People organize the city by street names. Still, they do recall Pershing Square and a few other landmarks, that they can place. Interestingly, people's views of the city are more detailed in where they live, grow blurry in midrange areas (transit), and have slightly more detail downtown where they work (but not as much as where they live). Los Angeles, in other words, offers a specificity of view on the hyperlocal and on the macro but little on the midrange that connects the two.

Lynch shows differing views with maps--photos of an area, professionally created maps of an area, and maps based on people's memories and views of an area. The latter are interesting to compare with the professionally rendered insofar as certain areas disappear.

The next chapter focuses on five elements that go in to people's created images, or maps, of a city: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. Each of these play a role in how people organize their views. Travel along a path might render more detail there with other items organized around it--and so on for each element. Interestingly, landmarks occasionally might be "baseless"--that is, they form part of the skyline but people really don't know what their base looks like, what their function is, or where exactly they are. Folks forge maps in different ways--along paths and radiating out, from basic grids with items placed on them, with edges (e.g., Boston's waterfront) with the interior slowly filled in, as adjacent regions that are filled in and connected, or from one small place and filled outward from there. The best images are put together with both a hierarchy and a continuity, but rarely do both elements come together.

Since we are constantly organizing our view of the city, good city planning should facilitate this organizing process, Lynch says. Hence, paths should lead toward some sort of destination; landmarks should be singular or, if smaller, bunched to create a sort of landmark destination; districts should be visually distinct from one another with clear edges; nodes should link districts. In all, the features of the city should be marked by the following characteristics: singularity, simplicity of form, continuity, dominance, clarity of joint, directional differentiation, visual scope, motion awareness, time series, and names and meanings. Difficulties arise, however, because people do not always enter a city or a path from the same direction. Hence, you can't just have a path with one climax, for someone might enter at the climax and then the other direction lacks for a destination. There must be a kind of melody or rhythm.

Lynch, thus, lays out three possible general organizations for the city: hierarchical (subdistricts within districts, all united around a singular node or landmark); two-sided dominance (hill on one side, ocean on the other--destinations at both ends); and temporal pattern or sequence (spaced areas of dominance at intervening points along a path).

Hence, in an ideal city, all parts conjoin to the whole image. Paths lead to districts, which are centered around landmarks, bounded by edges, and linked by nodes, which in turn "mark off" paths.

A conclusion denotes the importance of considering the city's image as a whole when planning, most especially in the suburbs, where attention to the whole is rarely given. Three appendices discuss images of cities in history (landmarks play a large role, and the more barren the landscape, the more adept locals become at reading their environment); the survey techniques for the research; and a microstudy of images of Boston's Beacon Hill and Scollay Square (the latter, though being a node, lacking visual signposts to make it stand out as a place).

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

On "Clock-In" by Vanessa Blakeslee (964 words) ****

The lead story in Blakeslee's Train Shots collection is akin to Daniel Orozco's "Orientation," only in this case the introduction to work is not to an office but rather to a restaurant. And the person doing the introducting has the goods on everyone--an a bit of an agenda. Read the story here at Flash Fiction Online.

On "Train Shots" by Vanessa Blakeslee ***

Having only an electronic version of this one--a copy of the galleys given to me by the author for review--I've take a long while to read it through. I read on buses, on breaks, on street corners, in restaurants, on park benches, on sofas, in bed, anywhere I can manage. I don't read so much on computers--and certainly not much since taking on a family and moving to a new office that is not conducive to lunch-time reading at a computer screen. So I was not able to rip through Blakeslee's book with the kind of speed that a collection such as this would normally lend itself to: easy, fun reading.

Blakeslee's tales are of an expected variety--that is, there isn't a lot of experimentation here, and they didn't really leave me with much to ponder at the end of each one. But they accomplish what they do well.

After a fun lead-in short short about work relations, Blakeslee's collection settles in traditional faire. Most of the stories revolve around loss in some way--people searching for something, be it more to a relationship that is going bad or already has, a place to call home, or simply peace.

The strongest story in the collection, for me, is "Barbecue Rabbit," a tale about a mother and her mentally disturbed son. Reading about how this mother tries to cope is heartbrearking and horrifying.

"Uninvited Guests" focuses on a poor woman whose is forced to live under the surveillance of a religious landlord and to lie in order to continue a lifestyle to her liking. "Hospice of the Au Pair" focuses on a man whose wife dies and who has to deal also with the concurrent guilt of having a baby by another woman. "The Sponge Diver" focuses on the loss of a birth-control device amid the closing of a relationship. "Don't Forget the Beignets" is about a woman in over her head as her husband is carted away to prison for supposed financial misdeeds. And the title story at the end of the collection tells of a man dealing with the deaths he comes across (literally runs over) as a train engineer.