Thursday, July 30, 2009

Maria Tatar (my favorite books on writing)

Maria Tatar's Enchanted Hunters isn't precisely a book on writing. Subtitled The Power of Stories in Childhood, it is actually a wide-ranging examination of how children interact fiction, beginning with the bedtime stories that are read to them, and then moving on to the active phase, where they begin to seek out books to read to themselves.

Some may find the title "Enchanted Hunters" a bit creepy in this this connection, since it is lifted from Lolita. There is a hotel by that name in Lolita, as well as a play by that name, and Humbert Humbert uses the phrase to characterize himself. Maria Tatar is deliberately rehabilitating the phrase, since she thinks it is more aptly applied to young readers exploring the world of books than to pedophilia; but it is still an unusual choice.

The discussion of the changing roles of "bedtime stories"--which transformed from an ancient fireside tradition for whole families into stories intended to enthrall children, and has finally morphed in recent years into stories specifically designed to put children to sleep as quickly as possible--is engaging and thought-provoking. Tatar also has fine discussions on the roles of fear and horror, on the kinds of children who become habitual readers (and often writers), and on the ways where fiction can fuse escapism with facing life's problems; indeed, with facing problems that go beyond one's direct life experience.

For writers, however, the most interesting parts of this book focus on how children's literature works, and Tatar raises two points I'd never pondered before with respect to writing for children and young adults.

The concrete versus the abstract. As writers, we've all been told to focus on the specific, the Chekhovian ideal of the telling detail, and to avoid speaking in generalizations and superlatives. After all, saying that someone is possessed of "radiant beauty" doesn't really say much, does it?

On the contrary. In works for children and young adults, abstractions for positive qualities flourish, and even seem to be more effective than the concrete. As Tatar says in discussing one of Perrault's fairy tales, Donkeyskin: "There is the stereotypical proliferation of abstract adjectives: 'elegant,' 'magnificent,' 'lovely,' 'beautiful,' 'fine,' 'fresh,' 'warm,' 'wise,' 'modest'--attributes that leave a good deal of room for the imagination. It is, in fact, not very easy to spell out what Perrault wanted us to see, for there are few practical instructions for visualizing the princess. Donkeyskin's dress of gold and diamonds dazzles, and that diaphanous state of illumination, I would argue, allows the author to shine beams on her many abstract virtues to produce astonishing effects. The light of the dress ignites our imagination, urging us to fill in the blanks and to participate in the process of creating Donkeyskin's superlative inner and outer beauty...Luminosity, glitter, and sparkle enable the mind to picture persons and things despite and because of a lack of specificity."

Though Tatar doesn't discuss the issue, I think the reason this works so well with young readers is twofold. First, it allows them to impose their own concepts of beauty, warmth, or wisdom rather than dealing with specific examples which they might not, in fact, find beautiful, warm, or wise. Second, it doesn't demand the construction of subtext, a skill that develops only as readers become more mature. A "good" writer for adults throws out concrete details, specific bits of action and dialogue, and the odd metaphor or simile, and expects the readers to put it all together and summon up an understanding of character and motivation. Show, don't tell, isn't necessarily the most effective prescription for readers who have not yet developed this skill at synthesis.

I think this lack of synthetic ability and limited grasp of subtext is the reason that adverbs proliferate in the dialogue tags of young-adult novels. The Harry Potter novels contain an endless torrent of adverbial dialogue tags (some of them unintentionally hilarious, such as Harry ejaculated), but these help young readers understand immediately what the character is feeling, without demanding they stop and try to puzzle it out.

After showing that abstractions work so well for young readers, however, Tatar goes on to make a striking point: Abstractions work well for positive qualities, but for the dark, dangerous, and horrific, the more concrete, the better. As the author puts it, "Evil has many different faces, and its devlish manifestations are often in the gory details. We do not need many cues to imagine beauty and its spiritual uplift, but our minds seem to hanker for clear instructions when it comes to imagining the materiality of violence and horror. Writers of childrens books do not fail to deliver...Descriptions of beauty often have embedded in them an astonished observer contemplating the sights. Horror, by contrast, compels observers to both look and look away."

In books for children and young adults, there is a time to show and a time to tell, and which is more appropriate seems to depend on whether one is describing light or darkness.

Learning the protean power of words. At the same time that children are learning that letters on a page can tell a clear and enthralling story, they are also discovering that words can be slippery, ambiguous tools, prone to twisting in your hand just when you think you've grasped them.

Tatar points out that many treasured stories, such as The Wizard of Oz ("There's no place like home!") and The Secret Garden ("The Magic is in me! The Magic is making me strong!") teach that words are powerful, life-transforming things.

At the same time, however, some of the books best loved by the more skillful young readers, such as Lewis Carroll's Alice books, or Norman Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, revel in the plasticity of language, using it to confuse, to baffle, or to 'prove' nonsensical propositions. To those who have mastered the art of reading, this provides a new level of delight; but one can only imagine how frustrating such books must be for those children who read laboriously, struggling to piece together a storyline when often the intent of the writer is not to transfer plot developments but instead to play with the nature of language itself. Although Tatar doesn't discuss it, to my mind this must be the point at which lifelong readers become fully committed, and the less skilled drift away.

In focusing here on implications for writers, I haven't attempted to do justice to Maria Tatar's fine book; it goes far beyond the issues I have cited here. Her analyses of particular books are fascinating (who would have thought someone could write page after absorbing page on how Goodnight, Moon works?), and her overview of how the tone and goals of books for children have changed since the 18th century is absorbing. If you're interested in children's literature, I can't imagine a more enjoyable book.

Well, okay--I can't imagine a more enjoyable nonfiction book.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Moderation in Some, But Not All, Things

I'm turning on comment moderation so I can decrease the amount of Chinese-language spam appearing in the Comment trail.

I've been reluctant to do this, but the Chinese spam is relentless and it's no longer amusing. In addition, it links to utterly boring sites; the most recent, to take a single example, appears to be a dermatology clinic. This isn't one of those dermatology sites that shows truly horrendous skin conditions that make you want to take bleach to your computer screen afterwards (and possibly rub bleach into your eyes just to be safe). No, this is a site that shows a lot of slight blemishes that are somewhat ameliorated by a combination of treatment and Photoshop.

I suppose a Chinese Certified Public Accountant webpage would be more more boring, but only slightly. I never thought anything could make me view penis-enlargement techniques, Canadian pharmaceuticals, and fake Rolex offers as a sort of golden age, but these folks have managed.

So, my apologies: there will now be a delay between the time you post your comments and when they appear on the blog. And, just so I don't get confused and delete your legitimate comments by accident, I urge you to avoid making your comments in Chinese ideograms. (If you can't resist making your comments in Chinese, please use Pinyin.)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Walking, Standing, Writing

Okay, have you heard about all the research that shows that sitting down for hours at a time is bad for you? If you haven't, then let me summarize:

1) Sitting lowers the activity of various lipase enzymes involved in breaking down fat.

2) Lowering lipase enzymes has profound metabolic consequences including lowering levels of "good" HDL cholesterol, upping the bad kinds, knocking liver and pancreatic enzymes out of whack, and a bunch of other things you don't want to hear about.

3) It isn't simply that sitting implies a sedentary lifestyle. Sitting for hours makes changes than even an hour of vigorous daily exercise can't counter.

4) It isn't just about the exercise; simply standing instead of sitting makes a huge difference.

Hmm. A bit of a problem for us writerly types, isn't it?

But, then, Hemingway wrote standing up (supposedly because of a back problem). Thomas Wolfe also wrote standing up, though he never said why; Wolfe was six-foot-six, so he often found it convenient to compose using the top of a refrigerator as a desk.

Looking into it, I find that Virginia Woolf and Winston Churchill also wrote standing, and that Philip Roth continues to do so today. In fact, in the nineteenth century, "standing desks" were quite common, and Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll both composed while standing. (I'm sure Faye Booth could have told me all that, and probably even has vintage postcards showing what a standing desk looks like. No good Victorian home should be without one.)

Somehow standing and writing seems more compatible with scratching along with a pen or pencil than with tapping at a keyboard, but I'm assured by what I read here and there that standing and whacking at a keyboard is easy once you get used to it. Those folks who check you in at the airlines do it all day long.

Certainly I'm capable of thinking about writing while on my feet. After all, I get my best thinking about stories done while I'm out walking, and a good walk is usually my first remedy when I get stuck. There have been quite a few times where I vaguely wished I had a voice recorder with me, as sometimes the words start coming while I'm out walking, and I have to rush home like someone with a bladder problem. (Alas, when confronted with an actual voice recorder, the words in my head vanish. There's something about my writing process that requires seeing the words going down on the page--even if that page is in fact a computer screen.)

So I plan to try writing while standing and see how that works. For the moment, the arrangements will consist of a box stacked on top of my existing desktop. I'm also advised that it's useful to have something to prop up first one foot and then the other, sort of like a bar rail. I gather the Victorians had some sort of stools to lean back against as well, though I'm not quite sure how those looked or worked.

There are a surprising number of people out there now who are working all day while standing on treadmills moving at about a mile per hour. (By 'a surprising number' I don't mean many thousands. The fact that there's more than, say, three people doing this came as a surprise to me.) I am assured by enthusiasts of this technology that you adapt rapidly, and your mind is more active, alert, and less distractable. I have a hard time imagining myself typing while walking, especially while writing fiction; as it is, I already have a tendency to forget to breathe. Stumping along on a treadmill while trying to work strikes me as fraught with comedy potential.

Nonetheless, there are whole companies out there now devoted to treadmill desks--here's a video of one of the inventors. Even he admits that writing is better done sitting down, but not everyone agrees; one YA writer now works while on a treadmill desk.

I'm not ready to head down that road yet. Nor am I ready to buy the $3,800 "English Bamboo and Lacquer Standing Desk c1880" offered by One of a Kind Antiques of Essex, Connecticut--not only because I don't have $3,800 to spend on such an experiment, but also because the concept of "English Bamboo" makes my head hurt. No, for the moment I'll just use that plastic carton atop my desk and see how that goes.

And if that doesn't seem to work, maybe I'll subscribe to the approach favored by Marcel Proust, Mark Twain, and Woody Allen. They all wrote in bed.

Monday, July 13, 2009

POV Part X: More On Shifting POV

No one uses shifts from consciousness to consciousness quite like Ann Patchett. Since she builds her fluid POV technique up gradually, it is impossible to do her craft justice in even a long quotation; by the time she gets rolling, we know the interior landscape of each major character intimately. Nonetheless, an excerpt from her wonderful novel Bel Canto gives an idea of how she wields POV.

A little background in necessary to follow the scene. A group of revolutionaries have taken over the Vice-President's house (in a country that is clearly Peru, although I don't believe the country is ever identified). The Vice-President was hosting a major diplomatic party, and now, a few days later, most of the attendees are hostages. Among these are Simon Thibault, the French Ambassador; Gen, a translator attached to a Japanese businessman; and Ruben, the Vice-President himself. Carmen, Beatriz, and Ishmael are among the youngest of the revolutionaries.

As the scene opens, Thibault, Ruben, and Gen are in the kitchen. The government forces outside the building have sent in more food, but on this particular day rather than prepared food it consists of raw vegetables and uncooked chicken. The revolutionaries confiscated all the knives from the kitched during their takeover, and the scene begins when Gen has just returned from pleading with 'The General' of the revolutionaries to provide them with knives so they can prepare a meal for everyone.

aaaaa“What about a simple coq au vin?” Thibault said.
aaaaa“They confiscated all the vin,” Ruben said. “We could always send Gen out for another request. It’s probably locked up around here somewhere unless they drank it all.”
aaaaa“No vin,” Simon Thibault said sadly, as if it were something dangerous, as if it were a knife. How impossible. In Paris one could be careless, one could afford to run out completely because anything you wanted was a half a block away, a case, a bottle, a glass…
aaaaaaaaaa[a long reverie/flashback]
aaaaa“Isn’t there some kind of coq sans vin?” Ruben leaned forward to look at the book. All these books in his home that he had never seen before! He wondered if they belonged to him or to the house.
aaaaaThibault pushed Edith’s scarf over his shoulder. He said something about roasting and turned his head away to read. No sooner had he looked at the page than the door swung open and in came three, Beatriz, the tall one, pretty Carmen, and then Ishmael, each of them with two and three knives apiece.
aaaaa“You asked for us, didn’t you?” Beatriz said to Gen. “I’m not on duty now at all. I was going to watch television.”
aaaaaGen looked at the clock on the wall. “It’s past time for your program,” he said, trying to keep his eyes on her.
aaaaa“There are other things on,” she said. “There are lots of good programs. ‘Send the girls to do it.’ That’s always the way.”
aaaaa“They didn’t just send the girls,” Ishmael said in his own defense.
aaaaa“Practically,” Beatriz said.
aaaaaIshmael reddened and he rolled the wooden handle of the knife between his palms.
aaaaa“The General said we were to come and help with dinner,” Carmen said. She spoke to the Vice-President. She did not turn her eyes to Gen, who did not look at her, so how did it seem they were staring at one another?
aaaaa“We are most grateful,” Simon Thibault said. “We know nothing about the operation of knives. If entrusted with something as dangerous as knives there would be a bloodbath here in a matter of minutes. Not that we would be killers, mind you. We’d cut off our own fingers, bleed to death right here on the floor.”
aaaaa“Stop it,” Ishmael said, and giggled. He had recently received one of the amateur haircuts that had been going around. Where his head had once been covered in heavy rolls of curls, the hair was now snipped with irregular closeness. It bristled like grass in some places and lay down neatly in others. In a few places it was all but gone and small patches if pink scalp shone through like the skin of a newly born mouse. He was told it would make him look older but really it just made him look ill.
aaaaa“Do any of you know how to cook?” Ruben asked.
aaaaa“A little,” Carmen said, studying the position of her feet on the black-and-white checkerboard of the floor.
aaaaa“Of course we can cook,” Beatriz snapped. “Who do you think does our cooking for us?”
aaaaa“Your parents. That’s a possibility,” the Vice-President said.
aaaaa“We’re adults. We take care of ourselves. We don’t have parents looking after us like children.” Beatriz was only irritated about missing television. She had done all her work, after all, patrolled the upstairs of the house and stood watch for two hours at the window. She had cleaned and oiled the Generals’ guns and her own gun. It wasn’t fair that she had been called into the kitchen. There was a wonderful program that came on in the late afternoon, a girl wearing a star-covered vest and a full skirt who sang cowboy songs and danced in high heels.
aaaaaIshmael sighed and set his three knives on the counter in front of him. His parents were dead. His father had been taken from the house one night by a group of men and no one saw him again. His mother went with a simple flu eleven months ago. Ishmael was nearly fifteen, even if his body produced no evidence to support this fact. He was not a child, if being a child meant one had parents to cook your supper.
aaaaa“So you know the onion,” Thibault said, holding up an onion.
aaaaa“Better than you do,” Beatriz said.
aaaaa"Then take that dangerous knife and chop up some onions.” Thibault passed out cutting boards and bowls. Why weren’t cutting boards considered weapons? Hold the two edges firmly in your hands and it was clear that the great slabs of wood were just the right size for hitting someone on the back of the head. And why not bowls, for that matter? The heavy ceramic in the color of pastel mints seemed harmless enough while holding bananas, but once they were broken how were they that much different from the knife? Couldn’t one drive a shard of pottery into a human heart just as easily? Thibault asked Carmen to mince the garlic and slice the sweet peppers. To Ishmael he held up an eggplant. “Peeled, seeded, chopped.”
aaaaaIshmael’s knife was heavy and long. Which of them wielded a paring knife for self-defense? Who had taken the grapefruit knife? When he tried to remove the skin he wound up cutting three inches into the spongy yellow flesh. Thibault watched him for a while and then held out his hands. “Not like that,” he said. “There will be nothing to eat. Here, give them here.”
aaaaaIshmael stopped, examined his work, then he held out the butchered vegetable and the knife. He held the blade out to Thibault. What did he know about kitchen manners? Then Thibault had them both, the knife and the eggplant, one in each hand. Deftly, quickly, he began to peel back the skin.
aaaaa“Drop it!” Beatriz shouted. On calling out she dropped her own knife, the blade slick with onions, a shower of minced onions scattering onto the floor like a wet, heavy snow. She pulled her gun from her belt and raised it up to the Ambassador.
aaaaa“Jesus!” Ruben said.
aaaaaThibault did not understand what he had done. He thought at first that she was angry that he had corrected the boy on his peeling. He thought the problem was with the eggplant and he laid the eggplant down first and then the knife.
aaaaa“Keep your voice down,” Carmen said to Beatriz in Quechua. “You’re going to get us all in trouble.”
aaaaa“He took the knife.”
aaaaaThibault raised up his empty hands, showed his smooth palms to the gun.
aaaaa“I handed him the knife,” Ishmael said. “I gave it to him.”
aaaaa“He was only going to peel,” Gen said. He could not recognize a word of this language they spoke to one other.
aaaaa“He isn’t supposed to hold the knife,” Beatriz said in Spanish. “The General told us that. Doesn’t anyone listen?” She kept he gun aimed, her heavy eyebrows pointed down. Her eyes were starting to water from the fumes of the onions, and soon there were tears washing down over her cheeks, which everyone misunderstood.

Overall, the scene remains Thibault's scene, but while we spend more time in his perspective than in anyone else's, we dip into the minds of everyone else in the scene--and even, at the end, are told that "everyone misunderstood" Beatriz' tears. There are also a few passages--such as the one about Ishmael's haircut--that are from the narrator's perspective, outside the minds of anyone present.

Patchett does all this with fine control, and I never find her movements from head to head to be confusing or jarring. But, then, I think Bel Canto is a brilliant book, while I've met some people who positively loathed it--and when asked why they disliked it, they usually cited the lack of a single protagonist to identify with. I agree that if it focused on a single character or two that it would be a very different novel; but it is the scope of POVs that makes Bel Canto such a singular achievement.

POV Part IX: The Wide World of Third-Person--Shifting POV

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There are certain terms in writing that are used only when a common technique is used in what the critic feels is an unsuccessful fashion. For example, exposition that annoys is "info-dumping." Explaining that seems redundant in context is "countersinking." And switching POV in a disorienting fashion is "head-hopping."

All of these are in the eyes of the beholder. There is an unfortunate species of writer, common in the US (I'm not sure how well they breed elsewhere in the world), who believe that good writing never contains exposition, re-emphasis, or switches in POV (or, at least no switches in POV without breaks in the text). Since many masterpieces of literature contain some or all of these, it isn't clear to me how folks maintain this particular critical stance; but, then, since they are obviously idiots, we need not worry further about them here.

Frequent switches of POV without a major break don't usually bother me--though I don't tend to do it in my own fiction. This a probably in part owing to cowardice on my part (it's hard to do well), and partly a matter of choice in craftsmanship; I believe that shifts in POV tend to expand the scope of a scene, but pay the price of a reduction in intensity.

Larry McMurtry is a brilliant prose stylist and storyteller who has the ability to write in many different POVs. In the quartet of books spawned from Lonesome Dove, he shifts from head to head in the most blunt and unapologetic way. A particular passage from Lonesome Dove has become (in)famous as an example of head-hopping, and has been so widely quoted it is often just called "The Buttermilk Scene":

aaaaa"Want some buttermilk?” July asked, going to the crock.
aaaaa“No, sir,” Joe said. He hated buttermilk, but July loved it so that he always asked anyway.
aaaaa“You ask him that every night,” Elmira said from the edge of the loft. It irritated her that July came home and did exactly the same things day after day.
aaaaa“Stop asking him,” she said sharply. “Let him get his own buttermilk if he wants any. It’s been four months now and he ain’t drunk a drop—looks like you’d let it go."
aaaaaShe spoke with a heat that surprised July. Elmira could get angry about almost anything, it seemed. Why would it matter if he invited the boy to have a drink of buttermilk?

Most people would call that "head-hopping," and I'm inclined to join in with the chorus. Certainly it doesn't anchor us in any particular perspective, nor does it ratchet up the intensity of what is, after all, a rather trivial scene.

On the other hand, it is part of McMurty's strategy in the book. The whole style of the novel is rather laconic, and matches the nature of most of the characters (even the one character who is given to long, prosy speeches isn't inclined to a great deal of self-revelation). The narrative voice of the book is spare, like the barren landscape of Texas, and although that voice is omniscient, it is also rather reticent. It gives us a sentence of dialogue, an accompanying thought, an action, but it resists the urge to smooth our way. What you see is what you get, with the unusual proviso that what you see is sometimes inside a character's head. The novel has a straightforward, plain, declarative tone, and although it is fiercely ironic in places, the writer never stops to wink at us; indeed, the writer is relatively invisible.

At the other end of the spectrum sits a writer like Patrick O'Brian. O'Brian loves the intrusive expository voice; he is on record as believing that English prose style reached its height with Jane Austen, and there are many sly Austen references in his novels. Although in the Aubrey/Maturin novels he often embeds us deep in a character's POV, he feels quite free to flutter from one head to another, sometimes even revealing the thoughts of animals. The transitions in POV are often done by pulling back from a character's thoughts to a great psychic distance and then working down into another POV, but he is also able to vault from one POV to another without confusing or jarring the reader.

There are some passages where action carries us from one POV to another. For example, O'Brian will have a scene where we are in Stephen Maturin's POV while Maturin talks to an officer; we will then follow the description of the officer's movements as he travels through the various levels of a ship and arrives at Jack Aubrey's cabin and we will then slide into Aubrey's POV. This sort of "geographical" transition in POVs is clear, never jarring, and almost unnoticeable unless you are watching for it as a matter of craft.

But O'Brian can also use geographic shifts in a more rapid way. In the novel The Commodore, Aubrey and Maturin have captured and boarded a slave ship off the coast of Africa. We are first embedded in Aubrey's mind as he explores the horrors of the ship, and then:

aaaaaHe returned to the Bellona, took off his clothes, stood long under a jet of clear water, retired to his cabin and sat there considering, revolving the possibilities open to him, thinking closely, taking notes, and writing two letters to Captain Wood at Sierra Leone, the one official, the other private.
aaaaaDuring this time, or part of it, Stephen sat with Whewell on the slaver’s capstan, the wind being abaft her quarter and the air clean as the squadron stood south-east. He was reasonably satisfied with his patients; he had put salve and clean linen on many and many an iron-chafed wrist, and there was a somewhat more human feeling on the well-fed deck.

Simple as that. Many writers, of course, would have added a white-space break between the two paragraphs, but the omniscient interjection of "During this time, or part of it" makes that unneccesary; there is no real need for a break in the flow of the text.

On occasion, O'Brian will leap directly from head to head, and it is always fun to watch how he goes about it. Unlike McMurtry, who uses dialogue to let us know where we are and then drops into the speaker's thoughts without further ado, O'Brian usually carries some sort of a thread, like a classical composer modulating between distant keys. In another passage from The Commodore, we are deep inside Aubrey's mind as he reads his secret orders from the Admiralty:

aaaaaDisregarding the assurance (their Lordships’ graceful finishing touch) that he must not fail in this or any part of it or he would answer the contrary at his peril, he called Stephen in from the great stern-gallery, the most engaging piece of naval architecture known to man, in fact. But hardly had the Doctor turned before the radiance in Jack’s smile, face, eyes dropped by two or three powers: the French clearly intended another invasion of Ireland, or liberation as they put it, and he felt a little shy of broaching the matter. Stephen had never made his views vehemently, injuriously clear, but Jack knew very well that he preferred the English to stay in England and to leave the government of Ireland to the Irish.
aaaaaStephen saw the change in his face—a large, essentially red face in spite of the tan in which his blue eyes shone with an uncommon brilliance, a face made for humour—and the papers in his hand.

Once again we have made the transition via an omniscient observation--the look on Jack's face. This is an 'outside' observation rather than Jack's POV, mixed in with the narrator relating to us Jack's thoughts from a slight distance. This look on Jack's face, when seen by Stephen, acts as a thread that slithers us neatly into Stephen's POV.

I first read the O'Brian novels for the characters and stories, but I have returned to them simply to watch the ways O'Brian plays with the craft of writing--and 'play' is the operative word. O'Brian makes omniscience look like great fun.

But, then, snowboarding looks like great fun, too; nonethelss, I suspect it's actually rather hard work.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Talent, Success, and Other Such Matters

Last night we went with friends to the Hollywood Bowl to see Joshua Bell perform the Bruch Violin Concerto. I've seen Bell before--a stunning performer, once you get past the fact that he looks a bit too much like actor Hugh Grant. (Not that I have anything against Hugh Grant, mind you. But Grant just doesn't seem like a violin virtuoso.)

Primitive Man Discovers Fire

But first, a digression. We were dragging along a wheeled cooler filled with champagne on ice and a pile of finger food. About halfway up to the Bowl, it felt as though I were hauling a travois raher than a wheeled cart. On inspection, we saw that one of the wheels wasn't turning.

A closer look revealed that the axle pin of one of the wheels had become detached from one side, and was protruding from the wheelbase. I reached down and pushed on it with my thumb, thinking I could push it back into place, and gave a quick yelp of pain. The friction of being dragged had made the axle searingly hot--fully hot enough to burn my thumb. For those who believe I am overstating the case, here is a picture of my thumb taken just before I typed this:

Despite continued application of ice, I ended up with quite a blister. If you've ever doubted that fire could be produced by friction alone, ala the Boy Scouts, I'm here to testify that it can. Ouch.

But, As I Was Saying...

Joshua Bell gave an extraordinary performance (as always), and the seven thousand fans on their feet clapping persuaded him to come back for a a solo encore, which was even more impressive than the Bruch.

But after the rapturous reception of his performance, I couldn't help thinking of the experiment Mr. Bell participated in back in 2007, when he set himself up in a Washington, DC subway as a busker and played for 45 minutes. Hardly anyone stopped to watch--though he did collect $32.17, which isn't bad for a busker. On the other hand, those of us watching him last night paid $96 each.

I'm morally certain that if I walked past Joshua Bell playing in a subway, or anywhere else, that I'd stop dead in my tracks. (And cry out, "Look! Isn't that Hugh Grant?"). But perhaps in the event I wouldn't notice; perhaps I'd mutter to myself, hey, this guy's pretty good, must have some training, and toss a dollar in his hat.

As anyone who has ever seen their typescript set in print and slapped between two covers can testify, presentation matters, and, to a great extent, the platform determines how much attnetion you command.

Apparently even in the case of certified genuises.