Monday, January 28, 2008


A Life Without Insects

I've been thinking a lot lately about our relationship to bugs. I remember when a college friend from NYC came to visit me in California during the summer with the warning: "I don't know if I can deal with bugs." Apparently she equated life outside of the city with insects.

This is no longer true, of course. If you've read any of the harrowing accounts of bed bug infestations in New York, Washington and Philadelphia, then you know that the bugs are very much back and with us. (Note to friends on an apartment search: please ask about a building's bed bug history).

Here is what the experts say. Once upon a time, we had bed bugs. Hence the "Good night, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite" ditty. We used DDT, the bugs were mostly eradicated, and then we discovered that DDT was bad for the California condor. So, we stopped using DDT and the bedbugs regrouped and plotted and planned to come back. At the same time--travelers from Asia and the MidEast--areas which never bombed the bedbugs back to the stone age--started coming to the US, bringing bed bugs with them. Now no one is safe! No one at all! You may very well wake up at 3 AM terrified that you are about to be bitten. You will look at your bedroom wall and sure enough, there will be a small black dot--a bed bug advancing toward your face or your shoulder. It doesn't matter if you have gone to sleep in sweats, and a turtleneck with your hands inside socks. The bed bugs will find some part of your body to bite. In the morning, you'll have red welts.

It's scary and it's gross. These little tiny creatures can just insert themselves into your imagination, working away at your more rational impulses to make you . . . paranoid. They are the very essence of the crazy, itchy, uncomfortable unconscious at work.

I thought about all the fairy tales and myths in which heroes (usually girls) are aided by insects. My favorite of these is the story of Psyche, which I've turned to over the past 15 years whenever something has confused me, ever since my father gave me Erich Neumann's analysis.

Psyche is given 4 tasks by the goddess Venus.

First, Venus took some tiny seeds of wheat, poppy, and millet, mixed them, and dropped them in a single pile. She gave Psyche until nightfall to separate the seeds. Psyche despaired, but a colony of ants, showing compassion, sorted them for her. Venus returned, and seeing what had happened, became even angrier.

Of this, Neumann says:

Psyche counters Aphrodite’s promiscuity with an instinctual ordering principle. While Aphrodite holds fast to the fertility of the swamp stage ..... Psyche possesses within her an unconscious principle which enables her to select, sift, correlate, and evaluate, and so find her way amid the confusion of the masculine. In opposition to the matriarchal position of Aphrodite, for whom the masculine is anonymous . . . Psyche, even in her first labor, has reached the stage of selectivity.

Robert Johnson puts this more succinctly.

The ant-nature is not of the intellect; it does not give us rules to follow; it is a primitive, instinctive, and quiet quality, legitimately available to women. Each woman has her own proficiency in this sorting attribute. Tasks can be done in a kind of geomoetric way, the nearest one first, or the one closest to a felling value first. In this simple, early way you can break the impasse of too-muchness.

I realize all this may sound hopelessly new-agey to you. But you'll have to cut me some slack. I did grow up in Northern California.

Here's a more cynical and rationalist take; we don't live with bugs anymore. As in, we mostly don't have to deal with them at all. When I found weevils in my flour one day, my father said to me: "Oh, just sift them out. They are harmless." I threw the flour away instead. But from his point of view, this was silly. He grew up on a farm during the DDT years when weevils were a part of life, and he developed a shoulder-shrugging-nonplussed attitude toward them. He is sorry about the return of bed bugs, but not all that surprised. He figures we'll just "deal."

I am from a spoiled generation that isn't used to bugs. I'm thinking maybe I should work on this. (The next time I saw weevils in my flour, I sifted them out.)

I find it no small coincidence that one of the most often repeated pieces of advice for dealing with bedbugs is: Eliminate clutter. That to me sounds like something straight out of Psyche's labors.

Continuing on the subject of bugs, I'm always slightly disturbed but fascinated by the Tamamushi shrine in Nara; originally it was decorated with the iridescent wings of the Tamamushi beetle.

Given that there weren't really any synthetic fabrics in 7th century Japan, you can't blame artists for wanting to use the unique qualities of the Tamamushi beetle to make something beautiful (in this case, scenes from the Buddha's past lives). Iridescence was relatively rare--something gods wore and that humans couldn't easily replicate. How did that make people feel about the Tamamushi beetle, I wonder? Did they get excited every time they saw one? Were they annoyed every time a beetle ended up inside their house?

One year when I went to look at the shrine, a priest had captured one of these beetles and had it in a plastic bag. And every time a visitor came by, he would show us the live beetle and ask us to re-imagine the shrine as it would have looked with fresh wings. He was a grown man, but his enthusiasm was like that of a child.

I wondered what life was like for that priest. Did he try to catch a Tamamushi every year? Did he think about the shrine every time he saw one of those beetles? Certainly a walk in the woods was for him a different thing than it was for me--definitely different than it would have been for my friend from NYC who announced that she hated all bugs. What would she have made of the shrine?

Finally, before you ask, I do not have bedbugs. Yet.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Three Problem Chapters

I've been working on these three chapters for a while. Once upon a time, they were at the start of the novel. They are meant to depict a haunting, and they are meant to have an effect both on the reader and the main character. Why I chose to do something so perverse is beyond me. I assumed that in order for these chapters to work, I'd need to both feel what I was doing, and think it through--heart and brain working in tandem.

One mistake I made with these chapters (which used to number 8 total) was to expand, expand, expand, piling up atmosphere and mood. I'm great at creating a mood! It's like knitting--I can just go and go and go. But these drafts were exhausting to read--just as endless atmosphere, say in a swank restaurant, in life is tiresome and eventually meaningless.

I got closer to a solution when I put these three chapters in the middle of the novel, where they happily reside now. This was a good solution, and one proposed by a very, very dear friend. I no longer needed to torture myself by trying to create a certain amount of atmosphere front loaded by action.

Then I over-cut. I played the "Jenga editing game" and cut and cut and cut till I was sitting in my room, surrounded by paper, and no story. The 3 chapters completely disappeared, though I put a paragraph in chapter 9 to hint at what had happened in the 3 missing chapters. With no emotional underpinning, novel collapsed. I was heartbroken. I spent about 72 hours in tears and a week with a migraine. My cats scratched up my right arm (I was trying to hug them for comfort and, well, they aren't as huggie as I would like) and I went to dance class and had to explain to people that I was not abusing a razor. All this seems very funny now.

Then I started to build the chapters back up again, when my most important reader reminded me of some things that had actually been pretty good to start with. I thought he might be lying to me at first. I got over myself and started to toy with these sections. Somewhere around the start of the year I had a little bit more confidence. I had 3 chapters again. They were still terrible, but at least I had them.

Maybe about two weeks ago I was down to just 2 problematic chapters. Then 1. By the weekend, I was down to a few key scenes. The weekend had me distressed. You'd think I would be happy to have narrowed down my problems to a few scenes, but, no, I was in a panic. It is so hard to have faith that somewhere in the future, your work will result in something finished. So I went to a sample sale with a very good friend and bought a shirt I don't need, but which she told me made me look edgy. I am not really edgy. I'm wholesome. It was helpful to think of myself as edgy to tackle the last of the transitions.

Finally, this evening, I'm down to a few key edits. I'm finally willing to have some faith that I will finish.

It sounds terribly self-indulgent to go on this way about writing. But there you go. That's what it is. It's essentially a matter of never giving up. I never understood when I was younger why any artist or writer had to be temperamental. This seemed like a cop out, and the kind of thing a spoiled boy would say to excuse his behavior. But the truth is, it actually takes some kind of temperament to get anywhere at all, as I learned with these troublesome 3 chapters. There were a few days--okay, weeks--where I declared to people that I really didn't think it was possible. I mean, I really didn't. No one takes me seriously when I say things like this, however. But it feels so real! These scary things feel so real . . . and it is by portraying such a lack of faith that one could write a series of chapters depicting a ghost and a haunting, if one were foolish enough to attempt do so . . .

I refuse to believe that writing is bad for you. This seems like an over dramatic point of view, a dated attitude of the Romantics. Writing about ghosts, though, and trying to fit them into 3 chapters. Well, that's probably not so good for your health and I'd like not to do it again. Thank you to all of my friends--and you should know who you are--for getting me to this point.

Monday, January 21, 2008


Game Developers are Writers Too

I was tremendously excited to play Bioware's new game Mass Effect, which is billed as a unique science fiction universe in which the decisions you make as a player affect the overall outcome of the store. I loved previous games Bioware has released, especially Knights of the Old Republic which is probably still my very all time favorite game.

But when I finished Mass Effect, I couldn't help but feel disappointed. Yes, the dialogue tree and the editing were superb and for the very first time, I truly had that feeling of being immersed in a movie in which all the emotional payoff came to me, the player, and not some actor. With Mass Effect you can really see how the medium of the video game is developing in such a way that it has the ability to provide a new kind of entertainment--and if I were to get all brainy here, I'd say it's probably a matter of time before these games give greater and deeper mysterious experiences beyond just eliminating aliens or killing zombies.

As I said, though, I found this game disappointing. There's all this promise and then . . . nothing. I hate that. I didn't leave the game feeling intensely about the characters. I didn't feel that what I had *done* had truly had any impact. The world felt thin and hurried. So much went into how the game *functioned* and not enough in to how it felt.

I read this intriguing post over at the Magical Wasteland in which the blogger criticizes the games sudden narrative leaps and loose ends.

The player reaches one point during the main story of Mass Effect where it seems as though a major decision is about be made. It’s presented as though the choice will have far-reaching consequences on the fate of the galaxy. But after it is made, the effects of this decision are never felt; in fact, the event is never referred to again after that particular mission is over. There are discussions the player can have with certain characters that seem to be leading somewhere, but the dialogue tree suddenly runs out of options, and conversation comes to an abrupt halt. And instead of the player finally figuring who the real villain is and what it wants, the villain simply shows up about two-thirds of the way through and explains itself directly to you, for no benefit to itself and seemingly no reason.

I’ve seen my fair share of emergency story patchwork up close, and each of these moments telegraph that aura.

So, this is interesting from a writing perspective. The skills one needs to tell a good story certainly apply to a video game--and don't laugh, you elitists who think that games are the silly obsessions of emotional retards. People are deadly serious about their games and how good the stories are. I worry sometimes about where the novel is going. But stories--and the problems inherent in telling them--aren't going away, I think.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


Boring Backgrounds and Mysteries

Last week a friend and I compared reading notes. I was bemoaning the fact that so much of what I've read in the last 12 months has been disappointing. I don't like being disappointed--I think of myself as a generally optimistic person who manages, despite the depressing thing I do, to gravitate toward being happy. Is literature changing or, like some addict, do I require greater and greater hits of my drug of choice to get high?

We've agreed to re-read an old favorite, Possession, by AS Byatt, to recapture some reading magic. A few pages in, I was reminded of something that has occurred to me before, but which I'd never noted. Here, are a few lines describing the protagonist:

He had arrived too late for things that were still in the air but vanished, the whole ferment and brightness and journeyings and youth of the 1960s, the blissful dawn of what he and his contemporaries saw as a pretty blank day. Through the psychedelic years he was a schoolboy in a depressed Lancashire cotton town, untouched alike by Liverpool noise and London turmoil. His father was a minor official in the County Council. His mother was a disappointed English graduate. He thought of himself as though he were an application form, for a job, a degree, a life, but when he thought of his mother, the adjective would not be expurgated. She was disappointed. In herself, in his father, in him.

Oh, the poor child of disappointed parents, growing up in a bleak town. The escape for our hero, Roland, is school, which is also disappointing in a way, until he stumbles on a long-buried letter and enters into a mystery.

Another favorite novel, The Magus, by John Fowles, opens like this:

I was born in 1927, the only child of middle-class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria. I was sent to a private school, I wasted two years doing my national service, I went to Oxford; and there I began to discover I was not the person I wanted to be.

I had long before made the discovery that I lacked the parents and ancestors I needed. My father was, through being the right age at the right time rather than through any great professional talent, a brigadier; and my mother was the very model of a would-be general's wife. That is, she never argued with him and always behaved as if he were listening in the next room, even when he was thousands of miles away."

Nicholas, the hero here, escapes his past by going to Greece as a teacher. Once there, he writes some poetry, undergoes a mystery.

Finally, there is this opener from Donna Tartt's The Secret History.

I grew up in Plano, a small silicon village in the north. No sisters, no brothers. My father ran a gas station and my mother stayed at home until I got older and times got tighter and she went to work, answering phones in the office of one of the big chip factories outside San Jose.

Plano. The word conjures up drive-ins, tract homes, waves of heat rising from the blacktop. My years there crated for me an expendable past, disposable as a plastic cup . . .

. . . I was consumed by a more general sense of dread, of imprisonment within the dreary round of school and home: circumstances which, to me at least, presented sound empirical argument for gloom. My father was mean, and our house ugly, and my mother didn't pay much attention to me; my clothes were cheap and my haircut too short and no one at school seemed to like me that much; and since all this had been true for as long as I could remember, I felt things would doubtless continue in this depressing vein as far as I could foresee. In short: I felt my existence was tainted, in some subtle but essential way.

Tartt's nod to Fowles is pretty well documented. At one point, it was said she wanted to title her novel The Godgame, which was also Fowles' initial choice for his own work. I assume that the kouros on the covers of both books are some kind of reference. And Tartt's hero, Richard, like Nicholas and Roland, also escapes into a world of books and mystery, though what he sees is, in some ways, far more terrifying than what the other two uncover.

I like the idea that books are one of the last ways we can have any kind of ritualized mystery. And, like all these protagonists in their very modern predicaments of boredom and longing, I want so very much to find the next book that will give me this, and to believe it will happen for the rest of my life.

Friday, January 18, 2008


Ongoing Geisha Saga Redux

A while back I posted that Mineko Iwasaki's memoir, Geisha, A Life, was due to be turned into a TV special in Japan. For a refresher on the scandal and lawsuit surrounding Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, see here. See also this archived article which questions Iwasaki's motives.

Now the TV special has come and gone and I've had a chance to see it. The title roughly translates to "Battle of the Flowers," which I guess is euphemism for a major catfight.

Read more »

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


My Island of the Blue Dolphins Fantasy Coat

Maud published a link a few weeks ago to the site Jezebel, who is currently re-reading beloved YA lit of the past and publishing adult thoughts on said subject. One such book was Island of the Blue Dolphins, in which Karana the Native American is left behind on an island while her entire family abandons her, and she is left to take care of herself and befriend animals and make her own clothes.

All I want for Christmas is a skirt of black cormorant feathers that shimmer green in the sun!

So says Jezebel. And, yes, I felt that way too. In fact, to this day when I am in California I can't look at a cormorant without A) thinking about Karana's iridescent skirt and B) wondering exactly how she made it. I, too, spent some pre-teen time playing in the back yard trying to make jewelry out of shells, and a bow and arrow out of a felled pine tree branch. It's all a lot harder than it looks.

Imagine my bemusement this weekend when, on a shopping trip for a new coat (a belated birthday present from the man in my life, and a much harder task than you might think because clothing is arranged by label and not by function, which means you actually have to go from floor to floor if you want to buy clothes in a department store like a normal person and not at a sample sale, but I digress), I came across this most excellent garment made of, you guessed it, feathers.

I had lots of fun admiring myself in the mirror and thinking privately that at last I was having my Karana moment and that I would have loved to have purchased this coat if it had been at all practical.

The man in my life said, "Those security guards were really watching you."

But I know enough not to think they thought I looked hot or something.

The coat was on sale for . . . $7,000. Original price $12,000.

I wonder how much Karana's skirt would cost today in Barneys.


Changing Mores


Twenty years ago, this is not really something you would have seen in Japan. Any of you long time Japanophiles notice what makes this photo (taken in Japan) a sample of changing manners and habits?

First posted at Japundit where you can read the debate.

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