Cristina Henriquez in the New Yorker again this week

In case you haven't cracked it open yet. This is number two for her, which is wonderful. Haven't had a chance to read it yet myself, but there is a long weekend beginning today.


Adios, muchachos

Tomorrow morning I will point my car East and head out of town for the saltier and more donut-strewn environs of South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. My house is four blocks from the ocean. Feel free to visit.

I will miss Iowa City terribly.


Consider the gonopodium

Editing a book about aquariums, in the fish-breeding chapter I encountered the fact that male fish "develop a stiff, rod-like appendage called a gonopodium," with which they impregnate the female. What a grand word the little fish gets for his member! (The female's organ is called the vent -- yawn.)

But gonopodium! Man alive. Why do mammals get the camparatively flabby, humiliating penis?

Anyway, the author goes on to mention that far more fry (baby fish) will be produced than you can possibly ever raise, and to use the extras as "feeders." She then goes on to cheerfully recommend inbreeding. Take some of your second-round fry, she says, and "breed the males with their grandmothers" in order to achieve whichever of her characteristics you're going for.

In my comments to the author, I mentioned the fact that some people might be put off to discover that their breeding program will actually turn into Soylent Green for fish. And I thought that she should really think about addressing the reader's likely alarm/distaste at being told to breed a fish with his grandmother. Regarding the latter issue, I wrote:
I don't see how you can let this incredible subject matter slide by as if it's ho-hum, as if it won't shock and even dismay the beginner!
To which she replied:
Why in the world would it shock a reader? It isn't like these fish are married and paying child support and know each other in family groups. Like these fish would not breed anyway if you tossed them in a tank?
I wrote:
Some people will throw the book at the wall right here. You have got to address the discomfort such a scheme will DEFINITELY produce in most beginning readers. Besides the opportunity for humor ... this is the richest motherlode I've seen in 14 years of editing!
She replied:
I don't think it is funny at all. You are making a big deal out of something fish do naturally, and that every hobbyist does. You think readers visualize fish calling for mates from the pet store? People are not that shut in. We are talking about cold-blooded fish, not humans.
After much back and forth, I wrote an example of the two disclaimers I'd like her to put in, and she accepted them and said to just put those in. First, I tackled death:
Beginning a fish breeding program brings with it some humane responsibility. Fish that you produce through breeding should, as they do in the wild, find their place in the biological ecosystem. Some species produce dozens or even hundreds of young. It's doubtful that you will want to keep every fish that your breeding pairs create. You should make every attempt to raise these fish, sell them, trade them, or give them away to good owners. If you think you cannot do these things, it may mean using excess fry to feed larger fish. Although this situation is found in nature, if you don't like the sound of you yourself doing it, then breeding is not for you.
And finally sex:
Inbreeding in mammals causes genetic defects, and many people find it a distasteful topic generally. However, in the fish world, it happens all the time. Sometimes survival depends on it. Fish inbreeding should not be thought of in the same light as for higher animals. However, it's possible that no amount of evidence or argument can get you over that hurdle. If that is the case, then inbreeding to produce new strains of fish is not for you.
She accepted this, but she still thinks I'm nuts. Am I?


"one big fiesta for illegal aliens and homosexuals"

Those of you who regularly follow political blogs and/or read Frank Rich's column (good times) will already be familiar with the line. But have you heard the actual radio ad? Mariachi music is prominently involved. Spectacularly offensive. I wouldn't believe it was real if it weren't on the candidate's site.



What do Carol Emshwiller, George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Bruce Sterling, Ted Chiang, Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, and Michael Chabon have in common? They're all in Feeling Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. Anyone read this? It looks pretty intriguing to say the least. My wallet is itching. Thanks a lot, gwarbot, for leading me to this book.

Described as the "literature of cognitive dissonance and of strangeness triumphant," slipstream is supposed to come off as "hauntingly familiar and very, very strange." Bruce Sterling coined the term in an essay 17 years ago, which a Booklist review says meant "a kind of story that was neither sf nor fantasy, exactly, but that was showing up in all the places that sf and fantasy did; a kind of story that used sf and fantasy elements within otherwise realistic, or at least consistent, settings to provoke a feeling of strangeness or, better, feeling at home, strangely."


J. C. Hallman interview: The Devil Is a Gentleman

Chris Hallman, Fiction class of 1991 and author of The Chess Artist, has published his second book: The Devil Is a Gentleman: Exploring America's Religious Fringe. The book is a vivid account of his personal experiences visiting eight different modern American religious groups, including The Church of Satan (make it your home page, folks), the Unarians (a UFO religion), Scientologists (I will not be linking to this one), Christian Wrestlers, American Athiests, Covenant of the Goddess, and the Monks of New Skete. Chris will be reading from his book at Prairie Lights July 21st.

Not content to simply report the insights gained by spending time with these organizations, Hallman deepens the whole kit & caboodle by weaving it all into an American zeitgeist uberstory via some terrific William James scholarship, channeling the father of American Philosophy and Psychology into pluralistic wonderment and teasing out numerous surprising parallels among ostensibly very different religious doctrines. This reader was up very late three nights in a row gobbling this stuff up. Well written and, it seems to me, of some importance, the book recounts a series of adventures into the spiritual bent of life now in our bizarre, pious empire.

See the San Francisco Chronicle review for another enthusiastic take on it. And without further ado:

EG: Can you summarize for us the basic tenets of William James's philosophy? What made him different among the intellectual giants of his day?

JCH: From a writer's point of view, James is probably most remarkable for being the origin of "stream of consciousness." This is James's metaphor for how the brain works -- he first conceived of it in 1880, and published it later in the decade. Obviously, this has had a big impact in how all kinds of narratives are executed. Gertrude Stein, for example, was James's student and worked with him on studies on automatic writing that probably influenced her later work.

The stream of consciousness filters down to all of literature. Stories weigh in on the same thing James was after -- the action of the mind. More generally, James is thought of as the father of the science of psychology, though he wouldn't have followed either of the paths it took after he died -- psychoanalysis and behaviorism. He was also the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, which helped kick start the field of comparative religions and which I took as my model for The Devil is a Gentleman. And he helped found Pragmatism, which meant, in brief, celebrating variety even in something like truth.

EG: The world, including America, with the rise of fundamentalism and hardening of rigid religious doctrines, seems at present to be going in the opposite direction from William James and his pluralism and Pragmatism. What led you to write about William James now?

JCH: Coming to James was really kind of an accident. I was broke after my first book came out, looking for something to write about and trusting my curiosity. I heard about this UFO cult in California whose prophecy of nearly three decades was about to fail. I could barely afford to go to their first meetings after the prophecy fell apart. But I did go -- on the hope that it would be something that I could write about. That gamble paid off.

While I was out there I had the idea that the people I was visiting might capture something about what I remembered of William James. I bought Varieties again and took a look. It fit nicely, and I was on my way. James applies just as well now as he did a hundred years ago. The battle lines are pretty clear: the right, religion; the left, secularism. Ironically, James was a liberal who wanted to defend and justify religious experience. Not religious organization, but experience. So what he ultimately does, as a thinker, is attempt to heal that basic rift in the world. He applies not only to that goofy UFO group, but to everyone else as well.

EG: How did you choose which religious groups to visit? Did James' work itself lead you to investigate specific modern American religions, or were the James scholarship sections retrofitted to address different aspects of James's thought that seemed to emerge from your experiences with these groups?

JCH: I limited myself to groups that had a strong American component and came about in the 20th century. But those were just loose rules. The James influence went both ways -- sometimes the research led me to one group, other times it was the other way around. For example, the first scholarly paper I read about Scientology said that L. Ron Hubbard had once listed his sources for Dianetics: Descartes, Taoism, Korzybski ... and William James. I kept finding connections all over the place.

EG: In the chapter on Anton LaVey's Church of Satan, you describe them as "good guys," and I was struck by the fact that they were the only ones who didn't take themselves totally seriously. What did you make of the fact that here you have a religion which the adherents take with an apparent grain of salt? They seemed to be having the most fun. I'm thinking of their clothing and weaponry fashions and their heavily stylized rituals that appeared to be performed with a tiny bit of tongue-in-cheek.

JCH: What was interesting to me about the Church of Satan was that they took ritual very seriously even though they didn't believe in a literal deity. Their rituals had the power of satire, however you would describe that. Which accounts for the fun part. They weren't alone in being the good guys, though. The more benign groups, in general -- the witches, the druids, the monks of New Skete -- all found a way to celebrate individuality and creativity, and usually did so by leaving their beliefs abstract. In general, when beliefs, as in fundamentalism, become too literal, they head toward what James called "the wrong side of religion's account." Then they're capable of what even the Church of Satan would call "evil."

EG: You mention in the book that the Scientologists followed up with phone calls for six months after you left them. Have you heard their reaction to the book? Was your publisher nervous about including that chapter?

JCH: Well, I can still talk to you about them, so that's good. No reaction from Church officials, but Tom Cruise keeps leaving me voicemail. As to my publisher, nervous is probably not the right word. Let's just say they paid close attention to that chapter.

EG: After the Christian Wrestlers chapter, in several places you mention annoyance at the theatricality and entertainment component of their spectacles. What do you think James would have made of the rise of megachurches in the U.S.?

JCH: James hated everything big. The corporate sentiment ruined religion, he would have said, and did so long before anything like megachurches came along. He would have said the ceremonies, such as they are, were full of "second-hand automatisms." For James, religion was how one struggled with life. It was hard. He would have been much more interested in the Christian Wrestlers, whose shows at least pantomimed a struggle.

EG: The saddest group, to me, were the Atheists. Their numbers pitiful, their gathering cynical, disorganized, and argumentative. They seemed like lonely souls who weren't quite comfortable even with each other. You make the point that Atheism takes on some of the forms of religions. What made you include them in your book?

JCH: When you write about religion, you can't possibly be comprehensive. There's just too much there. All you can hope to be is representative. That's why I included atheism. Ultimately, even non-belief is a form of religion because it, too, is an unfalsifiable hypothesis. The American Atheists were struggling, it's true, because their leader had died and they were trying to keep the movement going. This made them similar to some of the other religions I was looking at, and gave them a certain poignancy as well.

EG: You visited the "dog monks," the Monks of New Skete. It's the last chapter, and you say in it that they were perhaps the group that you felt closest to. They are also the ones closest to being part of a long-established and organized religion (Eastern Orthodox). What is it about a religion that's in it for the long haul, compared to new groups that haven't had as long to perfect their rituals and beliefs, that was able to hold you better in its embrace?

JCH: Actually, it wasn't the age of New Skete or Orthodoxy that drew me at all. All religions try to give the sense that theirs is a long-standing tradition, with deep roots. For non-traditional systems, this often means harkening back to what can be discerned of pre-Christian religion. But really most of them -- and much of Christianity as it's practiced today -- are modern inventions.

I liked New Skete not because it was old, but because it didn't apply tradition uncritically. It celebrated individuality and creativity. They accepted the world as it stood, with all its variety, and in this way they embodied something central to James.

EG: How does the famous dog breeding and training program fit into the spiritual life of the monks?

JCH: The monks are generally pretty wary of being pigeonholed as dog monks. It's caused them some problems. Nevertheless, they did talk to me about how raising dogs informed their faith. A central characteristic, even a defining characteristic, of religion is that very often it's based on hierarchies, whether it's deacon-priest-bishop-cardinal-pope in Catholicism or the various stages of enlightenment leading to "clear" in Scientology. Often it's a kind of disappointing aspect of religion, at least to an outsider, because it seems to echo military ranks. The monks had an interesting take on this. The relationship between a man and a dog is hierarchical, and so is the relationship between man and God. A dog is most happy when it knows its place, when it rises as high as it can in the pack and finds its proper location -- with people, that place is a step further down the rung. This is roughly analogous to how people can understand their relationship with God. Less, but not necessarily subservient. That relationship helps to raise people up to what they can be. It's like leaven, one monk told me.

EG: Early on you mention William James's experiments with mind-altering substances. I understand James was a fan of nitrous oxide. Did he have religious experiences on it? He also tried mescaline, though I believe he claimed it had no effect on him. What was James's take on the role of altered consciousness in religion?

JCH: James did dabble. As a guy who was interested in varieties of consciousness, he sort of had to. But it's actually incorrect to say that he had religious experiences from drugs. He said repeatedly throughout his life that he never had a true religious experience, and the closest he came had nothing to do with substances of any kind. Ultimately, James's experimentation says more about his open-mindedness than it does about a link between drugs and religion.

EG: Your tone throughout the chapters is very even-handed and respectful, even though you remain skeptical and deliver to the reader what you think about each belief system. How did you arrive at your own perspective and point of view in the book? I mean, it must often have been tempting to ridicule or go for a big laugh at the expense of some of these people -- I'm thinking of the Unarians, the UFO cult. Yet you resist that and instead give the reader a kind of unvarnished and often touching and charming picture of these people and what they are doing.

JCH: I wanted to have it both ways. Some of these groups are pretty odd, you can't get around that. But there's something about the world, and about these belief systems, that makes them attractive to people -- they have adherents. I wanted to get at that, to portray these people in such a way that you began to get a sense of what was potentially attractive about them. Partly, too, it was a technical problem: Can you describe a Christian wrestling match in such a way that a sophisticated, skeptical reader came to care about the outcome?

EG: Have your own views of religion changed as a result of writing this book?

JCH: I became more Jamesian, more forgiving probably. The oddness of the world surprises me less.

EG: William and his literary brother were close their whole lives, though they had their differences. Do you see any influence of William's thinking on Henry's fiction?

JCH: Definitely. This brings us around full circle a bit. Henry was very interested in William's work, while William was just baffled by Henry's. So I think it's possible to measure William's influence on Henry, and there have been scholarly efforts in that vein. For Henry, I think, William was tapping into some of the basic irreconcilable ambiguities about existence. William wound up wanting to resolve those, but Henry, I think, chose to take them as simply a description of how the world worked, and wanted to employ them. It's interesting -- fiction, ironically, is the only place where we get certainty. If your husband tells you he loves you, you choose to believe him. But if a narrator tells us A loves B, you can take it to the bank.

Henry James begins to tinker around with this after his attempts at theatre failed miserably in the mid-1890s. He experiments with ambiguity to capture a part of reality and to create drama. It's not a stretch to say that this is another way in which William James, whose major work on psychology appeared in 1890, helped give momentum to the literature of the twentieth century.

EG: What are you working on now?

JCH: I'm writing an article about Pleistocene rewilding for Harper's magazine.


A very interesting detention basin in Des Moines

Yes, Iowans really are this innocent... (via Rigorous Intuition). To paraphrase Sepka the Space Weasel, imagine future archaeologists finding something like this.


Loose id dreaming

I've always had extremely complex, wild, epic dreams, and ever since I first read about lucid dreaming in the early '90s, I've been trying to control them. I've had limited success. Probably once a year I've managed to fly, sometimes only a few feet, sometimes up to a roof, and one memorable time I was on my bike flying around my parents' neighborhood in Indiana.

I spent the past five days in South Carolina at a family reunion on the coast. Early Sunday morning, with the sea wind bending palm spikes to scratch against my window, I had the most extraordinary dream, even by my standards. At some point I recognized the dreamworld and remembered that I could fly if I wanted to. I gathered my strength and concentrated and -- whoooom! -- flew straight up into the atmosphere! Where I spotted a menacing UFO directly above me, which in turn spotted me and swerved down to investigate.

(Flying saucers have been appearing in my dreams since I was a small child. I've seen them take my father away, I've watched them destroy San Francisco.)

It nosed at me, like a dog. Its surface looked like the graphics in the movie Tron, unfinished, conceptual. I had a weapon on me, some kind of rifle, and I dearly wanted to blow the damned thing away, but something told me there would be trouble if I did that, so I decided to escape. Remembering I was dreaming, I ... went to sleep! And there I was on my bed asleep, the UFO gone. So I got up and opened my door and found I was still dreaming and walked into my dream city.

My dream city is always the same city, a hodge-podge alien urban psychedelic weirdworld where I often travel by running along the rooftops. This time I found Tracy in a park and excitedly reported my new power. She asked me to show her, and I went flying straight up again -- careful to not go high enough to attract UFO attention. When I came down she asked me to teach her. We tried, and she levitated about three feet off the ground. A good start. Then we went shopping. We went to a rope store, one of those big, fancy, elaborate places where you buy ropes, you see. The shopkeeper was measuring out our rope, and from sheer exuberance I took one end of it, rose to the top of a tall spruce tree in his atrium, and tied it to the highest branch. When I came down the two of them were clapping.

Then Tracy and I went to a show at a vast theater complex. And then dinner. At dinner, she pulled out some magazines she had published, and she was on the cover of each of them. Except the women were different "hers," if you know what I mean. They each were her, but they were each a different version of her, and they all looked totally different. While I was oohing and ahhing, a fellow at a nearby table drifted over. Said he couldn't help but overhear, said he was a bigwig, and offered to be her agent. I saw that somehow he had managed to be standing over me, the crotch of his jeans a few inches over my head, in the posture of a dog peeing to mark his territory. Remembering I was dreaming, I bolted up and said to him: "Are you really trying to pee on me, or are you a symbol in a position to pee on me figuratively?" His smile fell, and he backed off a few steps. But then I felt mean, and out of guilt we listened as he continued his pitch. All we had to do, he said, was watch his multimedia presentation and then decide if we wanted him to be her agent or not. So we went into a booth and watched a screen.

The screen soon filled with extraordinary imagery, marvelous landscapes, mythic personas, a constantly changing spectacle that was truly impressive. But I started thinking, hey, this is my dream. Not his. I should control the imagery. So I pointed my finger and tried to burn a hole in the picture. Sure enough, like a film getting stuck and melting from the heat of the projector lamp, a small hole appeared in the fantastic show. I started making gestures, such as shamans are said to make in order to manipulate reality, and gradually I was able to tear the imagery apart, and even to crush some of the characters onscreen by squeezing my hands. Their heads popped, bloodily. It was immensely satisfying. Then we were back in the booth and we got up and left the building.

"Oh, but look at him now!" said Tracy when we got outside.

There was the guy who would be her agent, except now he was older and decrepit, shuffling along the street in ragged clothes, panhandling.

"Ah, jeez," I said. I felt terrible. "Did I do that to him? Okay, let's give him some money." I walked over to an ATM machine, inserted my card, and the screen showed me asleep again, as I had been when I escaped the UFO.

Only it really was me asleep on the bed this time, and I shot up, wide awake, my brain buzzing from dream chemicals, the insects outside screeching about their own dreams, it seemed to me. I grabbed my video recorder and began recording myself recounting the dream in as much detail as I could remember. In the middle of it, the video camera's battery died -- see? the machines don't want me to remember a thing like that -- so I quickly plugged it into the wall and resumed. When I was done, I walked down to the beach. It was 4:15 am.

I sat there looking at the ocean, feeling that I had crossed some kind of threshold, achieved a new measure of control in my dreams, and maybe even in my life. I felt more confident and joyous than I have in some time, and yet at peace, watching shiplights glimmer on the dim horizon. As in a video game, I had reached a new level, but I also knew that there were many other levels above that, and that the dreamworld is under some kind of military dictatorship, via those damned machines that terrorize from the sky.

I was also troubled to discover that the rule of morality of action, the karma law, is also in effect there. I had hurt that man, that character, whose job it seems was to show us his presentation, and when I destroyed it, I ruined his purpose, put him out on the street. I fired him. And then saw and felt the consequences of my actions. Are characters in dreams separate entities who share that reality? Are they forms melded in my subconscious? Does it matter?

I don't now how long I sat there in the sand. I felt extraordinarily alive and snug within my own purpose, my own expanding abilities in this short time on earth (I recently turned 40). I look forward to the new levels. I dare not hope that the abilities, as the shamans claim, eventually cross into the physical realm, but if they do, I guess what I'm doing now is practicing.


In Case You Called . . .

For four days last week/weekend, the voicemail system for SBC (nee AT&T) went down . . . for the *entire* state of Nevada. Four days!

That's not even the weird part: I've just been doing Google searches to see what articles were written about this in the news . . . and I can't find a single one. Not in the local newspaper (a Gannett subsidiary), not on SBC's website, not in the Vegas papers, not CNN.com. Nothing.

Maybe I'm stupid ("maybe" is being kind), but isn't this news-worthy? The silence is surprising and even a little unsettling. Such a widespread technological failure followed by an entire lack of coverage is something I've never encountered before, not once in my life. Anyone else?

Four days! The whole state! Not one story!