Friday, June 21, 2013

The Selective Rendering of Otherwise Disparate Materials

On Monday night, after an insane thunderstorm, a strangely beautiful yellow light shone in through the windows around dusk. The houses and trees across the street get the best light at that hour so I went outside to look at them. The yellow light was everywhere and the most incredible rainbow arched perfectly across the sky. This rainbow was thick. Honestly. If I had a spoon with a long enough handle I'm convinced I could have scooped some out. Would it have tasted like sherbet?

I don't know, but every single color of the spectrum was clearly delineated. The sky inside the arch was bright blue and to the right of the right arm of the rainbow it was several shades darker. There was a faint second rainbow as well, which you can kind of see in the photo above. So I grabbed the half-sleeping kids out of bed and they asked if we’d find a pot of gold. Which reminds me...

Both of my daughters found a four leaf clover this week. One through determination, the other through luck.  

I stumbled across a great cartoonist. His work is here.

At night I’ve been reading the Irish writer Edna O'Brien’s memoir, Country Girl. It’s wonderful so far. I became stuck on this sentence, though: "It was the first time that I came face to face with madness and feared it and was fascinated by it." I really wanted her to add another “I” before “feared it.” But that would alter the meaning; she had probably come face to face before and not feared it.

Her recollections of a farmhand named Carnero are wonderful.

The illustrator Katherine Roy and I are working to come up with some titles for the soda bottle book. The working title had been BOTTLE OF POP. But that does not get to the fantastic journey element of the story. So we’re still thinking.

In doing some research for the ninja novel I read an incredible story about an ancient samurai. It’s at the end of a battle. This samurai sees another warrior fleeing across the river. He calls him a coward and challenges him to stay and fight. The other warrior comes back. The samurai defeats him and sees that he is barely older than a boy and resembles his son. He wants to let him go, but other samurai are coming. They will kill the boy if he does not. So the samurai kills him, granting him a more noble death. Then he looks inside the young warrior’s satchel and finds a flute. He retires his sword and never kills again.

That’s how I remember it, anyway. I could have messed up some little details, but the one I clearly remember is the flute. Who would think he’d find a flute? It’s such a gentle, peaceful, human object. And it really shows the power of detail in a story.   

Sometimes when I become derailed at the computer, and find myself reading something unrelated to the task at hand, I close my eyes and remain in place for five or ten seconds. That usually works. Soon enough I refocus.

During one of these derailments I found an amazing story from 1966 about Celtics legend Bill Russell redesigning the basketball shoe and insisting it be affordable. What a change from today’s stars. He even redesigned the tread on the bottom to make it easier to stop short. The sports world needs more people like him. 

And a few quotes from the week’s readings...

A biography of TS Eliot by Peter Ackroyd:

“Eliot could, as it were, pick up a poem where he had left off. He had an extraordinary gift of synthesis so that what seems to be one poetic persona, or one melodic shape, is in fact the result of compression and the selective rendering of otherwise disparate materials.”

A few years ago I met the writer Louis Auchincloss and he told me he had the same ability. He could work on a story while sitting in court, waiting for his case to be heard, then switch into lawyer mode when his turn came, and promptly pick the story back up where he left off while riding the subway back to his office. I’m not so lucky. It takes me some time to return to the world of the story if I’ve been away.

45. “Then in the summer of this year he travelled to Munich, where he completed ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ He transcribed it into his notebook and then forgot about it. Conrad Aiken said that he had been ‘heartlessly indifferent to its fate.’”

Ah, but this makes sense! He wrote something great. He was satisfied. He expelled the story and the idea and the emotion from his head and his heart and got it all down on the page. When you do that well enough, publishing is an afterthought. It’s business. It’s nothing.

And a quote from Dr. Seuss, from the book The Cat Behind the Hat:

"If I can be of influence to one child in this great vice-ridden country, my life, I feel, has not been lived in vain.”

Friday, June 14, 2013

Stop Smelling the Flowers

A minor revelation this week. I realized I’m not one of those people who’s going two hundred miles an hour with his head down all the time and needs to slow down and stop for a while to smell the flowers. My problem is that I’m always stopping to smell the flowers. Not literally. I’m allergic to most flowers, so if I stopped to smell them all the time, I’d spend half my life sneezing. I’m speaking generally. Trees, faces, clouds, a peculiar stain in a rug or cool old rusted spiral staircase outside a building – these kinds of things are always grabbing me, making me stop and think. Often they send me off on some strange, high-speed train of thought that rips along and drops me off somewhere in, I don’t know, the Crimea. Surrounded by unicorns. And people drinking tea brewed in samovars. I dream up whole new stories, start writing them in my head, then remind myself, 'No, no, no. You have to focus.'

A case in point: This week, I visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to do some research. They’re running an amazing exhibit on samurai, and those legendary warriors are part of the focus of my next novel for kids. So this is not exactly work, or not in the way most people think of work, but for me, this was serious business. I was there to learn. On my way to learn, though, I cut through the courtyard and spotted this unintentional exhibit on the brick walls. A tapestry of ivy waving in the wind like the glassy surface of the ocean brushed by the first hints of wind. Here’s my little video of the scene:

I was transfixed for a while. I don’t know how long. And then I reminded myself: Stop smelling the flowers! Back to work!

Eventually I recovered my focus, but the day kept trying to distract me. Walking home from the train station, I passed by a local construction worker, a big man who lives around the corner from me and walks with great heavy strides in big, worn old boots. He was sitting outside a small house that looked like it doubled as a day care center. His shirt was off. He was sitting in a lawn chair and seemed to be sunning himself. I believe he was eating a brownie and there was a plastic kiddie pool at his feet. “The Bruins are on tonight!” he called out to me. We’ve chatted before, but he was entirely out of context there on the lawn. I didn’t expect him to speak. So I stuttered a response. “Yes!” I said. “Go!”

He wasn’t supposed to speak; he was supposed to act like the exhibits I'd just seen at the museum. He was supposed to sit there quietly and let me walk off and conjure some kind of short story.

A few hours later I passed a man sitting on a bench outside a bank. He, too, was entirely out of place. He looked French, and people don’t ever look French in my town. He wore a jacket with thin lapels. He sat straight-backed, wearing stylish glasses. A funny little canvas pouch lay beside him on the bench. I averted my eyes and headed for the ATM. When I came back out he was smoking a pipe. A pipe! Who smokes a pipe? On a bench in the middle of a suburban town where you’re always supposed to be going somewhere?

I'll tell you. Here’s my theory. He’s a French physicist. Maybe from the future. He was running a little experiment in his lab and everyone told him he should really wait for human trials but he had so much confidence in himself and his theories that he figured he'd give it a try and so he activated his machine and stepped through a wormhole and popped out on the other side in suburban Massachusetts in 2013. Stumped, and perhaps stuck, he decided the only thing to do would be to stop and enjoy a pipe while devising a strategy for returning to the France of the future.

There was also a sunburned little man with curly red hair trying to open the doors of several neighborhood banks. They were all locked. He looked desperate, ready to rob one.

The samurai exhibit was amazing, by the way. Absolutely stunning. They wore bear fur on their boots. Yes, bear fur.

This week I wrote about vegan crisps, quantum cryptography, child psychology, submarines, and samurai. Not all at once, though. And I read. Randomly and widely and incompletely. In reading about the new Hopper exhibit at the Whitney Museum in NY, I was excited to learn that he created many, many studies for his masterworks. I guess I never thought about painters creating drafts, but it makes perfect sense. A writer can’t be perfect on the first attempt. Why would a painter be any different? The exhibit includes 52 studies for "New York Movie" and 19 for "Nighthawks." That’s quite a few drafts!

Some quotes from the random readings this week:

“Chickens are categorized as birds by zoologists, as Sunday dinner by families, as a commodity by investors, and as a source of salmonella infection by pathophysiologists. Each categorization has a useful purpose.” - Jerome Kagan

“The measure of value of a not its plausibility or compatibility with a subset of facts, or its presumed validity, but its heurestic potential - how much it suggests for the next stage of investigation.” - Theodore Bullock

I’m sure there’s context to this next quote, but I’m not aware of it. Following the Emersonian model of reading, I picked the memoirs Ulysses S. Grant off the shelf at the local library, opened to a random page, and read this:

“I am not aware of ever having used a profane expression in my life; but I would have the charity to excuse those who may have done so, if they were in charge of a train of Mexican pack mules at the time.” – Ulysses S. Grant

After reading that delightful line I put the book back on the shelf. What more could General Grant possibly teach me?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Human Catapult and Super Mario Kart

Earlier today, at a great school here in Massachusetts, I spoke with a few hundred kids about reading, writing, science, and everything in between. At the start I was telling them how I love writing stories about smart, slightly weird people building weird, fantastic things. We discussed fast furniture and homemade Iron Man suits, but here are two other recent examples, both from Popular Science. 

In one case, a group of young engineers converted an actual go-kart park into a live, realistic rendition of the video game Super Mario Kart. The technology, based around the FIRST Robotics Competition Kit, is amazing, but my favorite part of the story is how they walked into the go-kart park in their white lab coats, introduced themselves to the manager, explained their goals, and asked if they could use one of his carts. Amazingly, the guy agreed. For more, read the story here:

And here's another wonderfully odd one. An engineer named Jason Bell - who also built an automated tow rope for his kids so they don't have to trudge through the snow up their backyard hill while sledding - designed and constructed a human catapult to launch BASE jumpers off a bridge. I know. It sounds insane. But Bell was incredibly careful and paid a great deal of attention to safety. That story is here: