Life in a Nutshell
10 November 2001
When I said that I had an essay in this month's print version of Skirt!, I didn't tell you it contained a lie. But now I feel I must set the record straight. The essay expresses my desire and intent to make lefse this year. I still want to make lefse. But I don't intend to make lefse. It's sad, because there's nothing like a fresh piece, hot, with a tiny little bit of butter. But mashing potatoes looks like it would hurt. Mashing enough potatoes to make lefse and then standing and rolling the pieces and either turning them myself or showing Mark or Timprov how to turn...? No. No, sadly, not this year. Next year, I hope. I haven't decided if I'm going to try to order a package of Mrs. Olson's online or what. I'm really amused that one of the benefits of lefse, according to Mrs. Olson's site, is that it fits your active lifestyle because it won't squish like bread. True, but not something I would have thought of.
You know what the problem is with being a big fan of life in Minnesota or Wisconsin? It's hard to sound balanced, because other people bring up the negative aspect the minute you say you'd like to live there: "But what about the [shudder] winter?" They steal your line. If you were going to be balanced about it, you could tell them all the wonderful things about the upper Midwest, and then say, "But the winter is a bit harsh." Instead, they jump right in, so then you have to say that it's really quite tolerable and not so much of a drawback as to prevent you from living there, and by the way you can perfect your cross-country skiing skills. So then proponents of Upper Midwestern life sound like we think there's nothing at all wrong with it. Hmm. I suspect enthusiastic Texans get the same deal with heat.
As part of our date last night, Mark and I went and wandered around Borders. I think my problem is that I like the Platonic form of books. I like the idea of books. I can't really imagine what it would be like to go into a bookstore and not discover a dozen things I'd love to read and hadn't thought about before. Last night was no exception, but I'm disturbed at what they didn't have. The new Sarah Zettel book, for example. (Everybody go read Sarah Zettel! Especially Fool's War!) It's Borders. Their point is to be large and have pretty much everything (except stuff about Finland). But no new Sarah Zettel, no new Nancy Kress? Bah. Silly people.
I've been talking about art and Modernism with David lately. He has a much higher tolerance for the avant garde than I do. I think that most of the "modern" tricks call more attention to themselves and their writer than to any other idea or character the work would try to communicate. And it annoys me. I know that I think Rene Magritte took his art in a much more fruitful direction with ordinary objects in extraordinary situations than Robert Rauschenberg did with his Erased de Kooning. Not all innovations are equal (nor has David argued that they are -- none of my views as stated here should be taken as the opposite of his, necessarily -- go ask him if you want to know what he thinks). I don't think writers or any other kind of artists should get credit for trying something new if that something doesn't work. Or, rather, I think they should get credit for trying something new as long as they evaluate it critically and don't bring it out into the public eye if it doesn't work particularly well.
The Erased de Kooning is a pretty good example of what annoys me. You know about this? Rauschenberg went to his buddy de Kooning and had him do a complex drawing. Then Rauschenberg erased every trace of it and hung the newly blank paper as Erased de Kooning by Rauschenberg. I've seen it. The thing is, it's no more interesting to look at than it is to describe. If you sat back and said, "Well, that's kind of a cool idea" -- that's as much reaction as I think you're likely to have to the actuality of the thing. Well, heck. You might as well describe it and move on, in that case. Like novels written without the letter "e." Just say, "Hey, what if someone wrote a novel without the letter 'e?'" And then your writer friends can all go, "Whoa, that'd be hard." And then you all move on, because the actual novel itself -- or at least the excerpts I have read of this particular example -- is only really interesting for the idea, not for the execution.
This is why I don't mind e.e. cummings: because I don't think I would like "maggy and milly and molly and may went down to the beach to play one day" or any of his more adult work any less if it had capitals in it, but I think with his body of work, he establishes a standard: not that he's not going to use capitals, but that he's only going to use them in certain ways, and when you see one, you should look out. However, if he had written longer works (like the archy and mehitabel person, for example), I would probably have just found it affected and annoying. Because a longer work can't be carried by a trick of capitalization, it's not compelling enough. Very few, if any, people are a novel worth of interested in the fine points of capitalization.
Of course, the real argument comes in with "what's a trick, rather than a valid usage?" But possibly the important thing here is that I feel that any piece of art is saying, in one way or another, "Look here. This is how the world is." The term "slice of life" means something specific, but I do think that most prose is a bit of "life in a nutshell." Some of the authors -- Naturalists, bah -- are saying it more directly than others: "Look here, there's a house on this corner that has three tulips still blooming and four tulips that have wilted and a bush of lavender and a woman who hasn't taken off the wilted tulips because...." Some of them are only saying it metaphorically: "Here, here is how human beings are kind of screwed up but resourceful and loving behind all of that."
So. Novels that feel to me as thought they're saying, "Look, this is how novelists are, they can do without the letter e" or some such slight idea -- well. It's a much less interesting viewpoint to me than even the Naturalists had. I'm afraid that so far I've not seen experimental style well combined with truly interesting ideas within the work very often. It seems to me that more often, modern authors and painters are making the choice between having interesting ideas within a work and having interesting ideas about it.
And, of course, the "to me" is pretty key there. If a certain novel doesn't feel to you as though it's doing anything particularly self-centered or annoying, read and enjoy; that's what freedom of speech is all about. And come argue with me about the particulars if you think I'm wrong about a specific work, or if you think I'm wrong in general. I'm not saying that people who think it's important to be Modern or avant garde should never be published. I'm just saying that I find them quite deeply unsatisfying, on the whole.
Ah well. It's Martin Luther's birthday today. Father Greeley would like us to believe that the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism is largely that Catholicism has a rich, complex mythology associated with it. (He means this in a good way.) I don't think that's it; I think he just doesn't know the mythology associated with being a Prot. I don't think he realizes how many stories you can associate with a fiery, earthy rebel-man and the people who followed him. Stories about how you question authority because they're often wrong, for example. They're just...human stories. Luther would have been the first one to tell you that he had no more of a direct line to God than anyone else. (One of the biggest points of the Protestant Reformation, in fact, for those of you who don't know.)
So we can look at what he said about Jews, what he said about government, we can look at several of the things he wrote and say, "Man, did you screw that one up badly!" Because nobody ever claimed that Martin Luther was anything more than a human being. If he had, Katie would probably have whacked him one. This is the advantage of having a spouse, I think. If you get delusions of grandeur, they know that you have to write down the five things you need from the office supply store or you'll forget them, or that you leave your belt lying on the floor or your soda cans on the bookcase.
Anyway. I am far behind on my reading, so I'd better get to Alec's and Avi's stories before lunch so that I don't get any further behind. Yes, I know, I don't have a day job and I've met all the deadlines I already have for this month. But self-motivation is a beautiful and scary thing, yeah? So off I go.
Oh, one more thing: Karina was piqued at not getting to hear what the lunar epoxy story is about. So. It's a mystery bouncing back and forth between the earth and a lunar colony. And if that's not enough, well, I'll just send you the story when it's finished, okay? Okay. Have a good Saturday.
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