Saturday, February 27, 2010

Hit the soft spot in my heart

1) From “The Book I Read,” by Talking Heads (1977)

I’m embarrassed to admit it hit the soft spot in my heart
When I found out you wrote the
book I read so

Take my shoulders as they touch your arms I’ve
Got little cold chills but I feel alright the
book I read was in your eyes oh oh

2) From “Fiction,” by Alice Munro (2009)

“Your name?”
“Just Joyce will be fine.”
Her time is passing so quickly.
“You were born in Rough River?”
“No,” says Christie O’Dell with some slight displeasure, or at least some diminishing of cheer. “I did live there for a time. Shall I put the date?”
Joyce retrieves her box. At Le Bon Chocolatier they did sell chocolate flowers, but not lilies. Only roses and tulips. So she had bought tulips, which were not actually unlike lilies. Both bulbs.
“I want to thank you for ‘Kindertotenlieder,’” she says so hastily that she almost swallows the long word. “It means a great deal to me. I brought you a present.”
“Is that a wonderful story.” The saleswoman takes the box. “I’ll just hang on to this.”
“It isn’t a bomb,” says Joyce with a laugh. “It’s chocolate lilies. Actually tulips. They didn’t have lilies so I got tulips, I thought they were the next best thing.”
She notices that the saleswoman is not smiling now but taking a hard look at her. Christie O’Dell says, “Thank you.”
There is not a scrap of recognition in the girl’s face. She doesn’t know Joyce from years ago in Rough River or two weeks ago at the party. You couldn’t even be sure that she had recognized the title of her own story. You would think she had nothing to do with it. As if it was just something she wriggled out of and left on the grass.
Christie O’Dell sits there and writes her name as if that is all the writing she could be responsible for in this world.
“It’s been a pleasure to chat with you,” says the saleswoman, still looking at the box which the girl at Le Bon Chocolatier has fixed with curly yellow ribbon.
Christie O’Dell has raised her eyes to greet the next person in line, and Joyce at last has the sense to move on, before she becomes an object of general amusement and her box, God knows, possibly an object of interest to the police.

Walking up Lonsdale Avenue, walking uphill, she feels flattened, but gradually regains her composure. This might even turn into a funny story that she would tell someday. She wouldn’t be surprised.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Deliberate Deceit

1) From “Enduring Love” by Ian McEwan (1997)

“I spent the afternoon in the reading room of the London Library, looking up some of Darwin’s more obscure contemporaries. I wanted to write about the death of anecdote and narrative in science, my idea being that Darwin’s generation was the last to permit itself the luxury of storytelling in published articles. Here was a letter to Nature dated 1904, a contribution to a long-running correspondence about consciousness in animals, in particular whether higher mammals like dogs could be said to have awareness of the consequences of their actions. The writer, one Mr. –––––, has a close friend whose dog favored a particular comfortable chair near the library fire. Mr. ––––– witnessed an occasion after dinner when he and his friend had retired there for a glass of port. The dog was shooed from its chair and the master sat down in its place. After a minute or two sitting in contemplative silence by the fire, the dog went to the door and whined to be let out. Its master obligingly rose and crossed the room, whereupon the pooch darted back and took possession once more of the favored place. For a few seconds it wore about its muzzle a look of undisguised triumph.

“The writer concluded that he dog must have had a plan, a sense of the future, which it attempted to shape by the practice of a deliberate deceit. And its pleasure in success must have been mediated by an act of memory. What I liked here was how the power and attractions of narrative had clouded judgment. By any standards of scientific inquiry, the story, however charming, was nonsense. No theory evinced, no terms defined, a meaningless sample of one, a laughable anthropomorphism. It was easy to construe the account in a way that would make it compatible with an automaton, or a creature doomed to inhabit a perpetual present: ousted from its chair, it takes the next best place, where it basks (rather than schemes) until it becomes aware of a need to urinate, then goes to the door as it has been trained to do, suddenly notices that the prized position is vacant again, forgets for the moment the signal from its bladder, and returns to take possession, the look of triumph being nothing more than the immediate expression of pleasure, or a projection in the mind of the observer.”

2) Fu Manchu, from Radio Lab (01-25-2010)

“In our last episode of Radiolab, Animal Minds, we asked whether it was possible for one animal to know what is going on in another animal’s mind. For us, it was a really about whether we, as humans, can really share a meaningful moment with an animal. In this podcast, we take that question a step further. Can an animal know what’s in our heads so well that they can manipulate and deceive us? To answer that question, reporter Ben Calhoun took us back to the 1960s to tell the story of a showdown between zookeeper Jerry Stones and a wily orangutan named Fu Manchu. Then, to help us get a grip on the science behind animals and deception, Ben talks to primatologist and orangutan expert Rob Shumaker of the Great Ape Trust.”