Stephen Fry makes a beautifully expressed plea for language lovers to share the love, not the pedantry. Matt Rogers tosses in some animated typographic eye candy.



Julia Rubiner of Editorial Emergency wrote a great follow-up to her article, Stop Abbreviation Abuse Now! (to which I replied ). It’s a nice article, and not just because Rubiner called me her “favorite taxonomist” in it ;–)

Read Call-back: My Epic Fail Failure.


When “fail” is a win

Editorial Emergency, a charming force for good in copy writing, sends out an e-news publication, “Editorializing.” Recently they published an editorial titled, “Stop Abbreviation Abuse Now!” This targeted some truly awful usages, such as “devo” instead of “development,” and “install” for “installation.”

But they made a slight error regarding the use of “fail,” not realizing this particular term is a deliberate, joking misusage. From the article:

But I wonder if those using “fail” as a stand-in for “failure” are simply witless.

If you regularly use “fail” instead of “failure,” please tell me why. Is it because you think it sounds cool? (It doesn’t.) Is it because you’re in a hurry? If the latter, how much time do you save in not typing “ure?”

This was my response:

Dear Editorial Emergency staff,

I enjoy your columns, and agree with your general argument about abbreviations being a poor attempt to demonstrate familiarity. However, I think one of the words you complain about, “fail,” is in a different situation than the others.

While “install,” “devo,” etc., are used seriously, “fail” is nearly always a joke, and the original point of the joke was that “fail” was a failure of English. (I say nearly, because I haven’t heard all usages, but personally I’ve never heard it used seriously.) The word was misused in a Japanese video game which used poor English, and the joking usage spread among game and software geeks. Since the poor grammar is the joke, it doesn’t make sense to criticize it.

“Fail” was then popularized through a meme, in which unfortunate situations were captured and sent via camera phone with the subject line “Fail.” This also popped up online. Over two years ago, a blog run by the same publishers as appeared to capture these. Icanhascheezburger also deliberately misspells words to (a) mock bad texting, and (b) feed into the pretense that the writing comes from cats. The idea is that if a cat could write English, it would do so poorly. (Clearly they missed Wittgenstein’s observation about lions.) The misspellings have taken on a life of their own, and are now called Lolspeak.

About the time the blog began, “fail” had already spread widely, first among young people, and from them to the adults in their lives. It’s even made it into television dramas and comedies. This solidly breaks it out of jargonistic geek usage. See an example of a “fail” post here:

All the other abbreviated terms you mention are used seriously, but “fail” is a joke. Even when the failure is serious, calling it a “fail” takes it lightly. You may not find it humorous yourselves, but I thought you’d want to know: we’re not all witless. We’re looking at the failures in our world, and joking about teh* funny.

best regards,

Alex O’Neal

* “Teh” is lolspeak for “the,” as in, “Teh intarweb iz mayd of pipes.”


Since this writing, Julia Rubiner of Editorial Emergency has kindly responded to my email, explaining she was being deliberately disingenuous in her assumed air of ignorance regarding “fail.” Just goes to show you should never make assumptions!


Grave’s Edge

This is one of my two published fiction shorts. It won second place in the 14th Chiaroscuro horror short contest; the prize was being paid (it worked out to about 10¢ per word) and published in the October 2008 issue of ChiZine.

If you’re interested, this was the BBC article which inspired the story.

Papua New Guinea.

I knew I was a vampire because I crawled out of my grave.

They piled the dirt over me despite my cries, and eventually I realized I was dead. I had heard stories of souls who died and did not know it. For a brief second I felt myself lucky for having the insight, and then a clod of dirt hit my eye. I covered my face with my arms and my burr-ridden wrap.

They did it at night, which is perhaps why they didn’t bury me too deep. My daughter cried and shooed the children back to the house as her husband shoveled. Shortly after I was covered she broke down completely, and her husband dropped the shovel and comforted her. I heard their footsteps recede, imagining his arm around her as he told her he would finish in the morning. I noticed I was still sucking at the bit of air slipping under the dirt-covered wool. Old habits die hard. I waited a while, hoping I would move on to oblivion. I felt the ground shake as a car passed on a nearby road. I wondered if this was what it was like to live in a cemetery.

I was not in a cemetery. I was in a shallow grave in the woods across the street from my daughter’s home. I expected she would visit at times, and cry, and I would listen and answer and go unheard. I had been unheard for some time, on my pallet in their hut, steadily growing smaller and bonier and weaker.

I had the slims, you see, the wasting disease that brought the foreign doctors with their needles, and the foreign reporters with their cameras, and which they said passed through the blood, or the remnants of love. Perhaps they were right. They came to the southern highlands and were kind, and sometimes even tried to learn our language in addition to the pidgin we all shared, the better to help us. But they were wrong. I think I got it from hating my husband. He was beautiful and blessed with a voice like a growling purr, soothing and predatory, and too many women fell victim to its persuasions. I hated him for it, even after he died wasting as I would, and what god could forgive a mother who hated the man that gave her the loving child of her heart? Obviously not mine.

So I worked until I had to sit down, and sat until I had to lie down, and lay until I died. And now I was in the underworld, beneath footsteps and any other living sound, listening to cars.

My poor daughter. How distraught she must have been to find my body. On the floor, a little stiller than usual. I wondered how long I lay before someone noticed. Probably not too long. Someone was always checking on me: I would feel a palm against my forehead, or my blanket tucked a little more securely, or water at my lips, and I would open my eyes to see my daughter, or her daughter, looking back at me with strained relief.

My body. Oh, what a foolishness—I did not have to stay here straining to hear earthworms. I did not have to remain in my grave. Every ghost story I knew freed the soul from its body. I could rise up, and leave this traitorous shell behind.

So I did. It was very difficult; I was very weak. I lifted my funeral shroud up carefully from my face, trying to make the dirt fall away from me. A little hit my mouth and I began to cough, which seemed terribly unfair. I realized I had to get used to being dead, and laughed while I coughed at how the ghost stories didn’t talk about this. Of course they didn’t. The storytellers were alive.

I sat up with difficulty, then used the crumbling edge of the grave to raise myself up. I had not walked in weeks—months, maybe—and this hurt. If I had been alive I would have said it was impossible. But dead, I knew such considerations were the lying of my mind, and would pass. I stood, tottering, for a moment. In front of me were branches and through them I could see the light seeping past the door of my old home. As I watched it went out, and I was left with only moonlight. I debated looking at my body, behind me. I was afraid. Even though death had come and gone, and I was still moving and aware, something about seeing death written on my features terrified me, made my gut ache and my breath catch like it hadn’t in decades.

But I had to look. Really, who couldn’t? And turning to look behind me, I became a pillar of salt.

My body was missing. Or rather, it wasn’t missing. It was standing.

I stood for some time, absorbing this. I don’t know how long. It seemed there was a very long pause in my mind, and all that occupied it was the empty grave I was trying not to see. Something hovered in my head, demanding my attention, and I tried to avoid it by studying the grave, the bits of brown and roots and grey leaves where the dim light struck, the abyss of the shadows where it did not. But I could not evade it for ever.

I was the undead. I was the monster. My hatred had been even stronger than I had realized, and had cursed me beyond the grave. I was the blood-sucking terror of the night, and doomed eventually by hunger and my curse to hunt the people I had lived with all my life.

What to do? I had to leave, before I lost the habits of life and began to practice the ways of death. My daughter and her husband would be in danger then. My granddaughter! They had no idea such a terrible person had lain on their floor all that time, or the man my daughter married would have removed my head and removed the danger.

I began to totter toward the road. I bit my lip, and told myself not to curse. I blinked a little at the few tears that managed to squeeze into my eyes. I was already thirsty.

A car came down the road and slowed as it saw me beneath the edge of the trees. It was two of the foreign helpers, a man and a woman. The one on my side of the road rolled down the window.

“Do you need help, mother?” The friendly intimacy of his tone struck me like a slap.

I gathered my voice, carefully. “I need to leave.” Like my legs, my voice was feeble. I would need sustenance soon.

“Are you lost?”

“No, I just need to leave.” I hoped they would take me far enough away that I would not endanger my village. I hoped I would control myself and not harm my benefactors, but if not, better foreign strangers than family and friends. I took a step toward the car, and stumbled. The car door belonging to the friendly voice opened and the young man came out and took my arm.

“Are you all right? You’re covered in dirt—did you fall? Are you hurt?”

“No.” I was anxious to get into the car, before he looked past me.

He looked past me, of course, and saw the man-sized blackness in the ground. “What the hell?” He raised his voice somewhat, to be heard to the car. “Hey, Paula, get over here!”

“Please, no. Just take me away.”

He craned his head down to look into my face. His expression was remarkably like the anxious care of my daughter. “Is that a grave?”

I didn’t speak. A middle-aged woman came up with a flashlight. “Do you need help, Reghu?” She shone the flashlight on me, revealing the dirt covering my shroud. “You poor thing, you’re filthy. Where is your home? Can we take you there?”

The young man spoke quietly. “Paula, take a look behind us.”

The flashlight danced beyond us, uncovering the grave. The woman’s other hand went to the camera around her neck, flipping it on and snapping off the lens cap as if part of herself, even as she gasped.

I sighed in defeat. Now they would know what I was, and would never take me anywhere. I was doomed to kill where I loved.

She handed over the flashlight to the man. “Hold this on the grave. I want to shoot it with the flashlight, and then a couple with the flash.” She glanced at me. “And something with both her and the grave.”

“Paula, she’s right here. You can’t talk about people like they’re elements in a still life.”

“I’m not still. I’m not alive,” I mumbled to myself.

“What was that?” he asked, face even more filled with concern. I kept silent. Maybe they would take me anyway. They didn’t seem to realize the monster I had become. The woman stepped back and took a photo of the young man and myself, with the grave just behind. She leaned in to take a close-up of the earth-stained fabric and my hand, and I shook the dirt off at her irritably.

“Please take me away.”

She let go of the camera, letting it hang, focusing on me. “Ma’am, were you in that grave?” She paused, swallowed. “Did someone bury you?”

“Please, I need to leave. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

Her eyebrows went up. “I’m sorry, but you don’t really look like a threat.”

The man cut her off. “Let’s get her in the car so she can sit down, Paula. Then we can go someplace safe and talk more. I don’t really like standing in the dark near a newly dug grave, do you?”

The woman nodded. “You’re right. You know, I’d heard about families doing things like this to AIDS victims, but I thought it was just a rumor.”

“They buried me wrong,” I explained as the two led me to the car.

“Yes, it was wrong of them to bury you,” the young man—hardly more than a boy—said, correcting me gently.

“No, they buried me wrong,” I repeated. “It wasn’t their fault.”

“It wasn’t their fault they buried you alive?” the woman exclaimed. The boy shot her a warning look.

“I’m not alive, but they didn’t know what they were burying. Please,” I said as I sank down gratefully onto the car seat, and felt my legs lifted and placed in the car. “Please just take me away. I don’t want to hurt anyone.” I looked earnestly into the young man’s eyes. “Would you cut off my head, please?”

“What?” They were shocked.

“I’m dead and I can’t leave, and if someone doesn’t cut off my head I’ll hurt someone.”

The woman shook her head, and the young man put his hand on my shoulder. “You’re not dead, mother.”

“Of course I’m dead. My daughter wouldn’t bury me alive!”

“They made a terrible mistake. But you’re alive.”

“It wasn’t a mistake, Reghu, we’ve heard about this before.”

“God, Paula, be quiet, please. You’re not helping.” He paused. “And now we’ve woken up the people across the street.”

I looked at my home. He was right, a light was moving in my old home. “Please,” I said, “let’s go. They can’t know I’m like this!”

“They’ll know you’re alive as soon as they see the grave, mother.”

“But I’m not alive! I am undead,” I said, watching with dread as the door flap opened, “and I am hungry and thirsty. If we don’t leave I will hurt my family.”

My son-in-law emerged, carrying his machete fearfully. He had probably watched the car a few minutes before emerging to see what was happening. He might not have seen me, since I was on the other side of the car. “Please, quick! Quick!” I begged.

The woman walked around to talk to the man who buried me. He tucked his machete at his waist, unafraid of a woman. Initially quiet, voices were quickly raised and my son-in-law began to yell, trying to walk around to my side of the car. I stopped listening. The boy and the woman tried to stand in his way, but too soon he stood before me, his tattooed face twisted by pain and fear.

“I’m sorry,” I said, before he could speak. “I didn’t want you to know. You should’ve taken precautions.”

He stared. Then, to the young man, “She walked here? She stood on her own?”


I watched comprehension bring horror. “You knew it might happen,” I said. “When my husband got the slims, we all thought it came from the witch in the next village. She had a reason to hate him. Who’s to say the curse didn’t fall on me as well?” I was sympathetic, but angry, too. “Why didn’t you stop this?”

“What was I supposed to do?” he burst out. “Cut off your head? You should have died!”

“Yes, cut off my head!” I was very angry. “I was dead, I was not going to miss it, was I? Now I’m undead, and I’m thirsty.” I leaned toward him. “Thirsty!” The fear in his eyes pleased me; he had not been patient with me the past weeks, I did not contribute and I ate their food and I smelled. “Thirsty…” I said again, and leaned back against the car seat, looking at the woman and the boy. “Take me away from here. Please.”

“No, you can’t!” my son-in-law said. “She will kill you!”

“She couldn’t hurt a fly,” the woman said. “She could barely walk to the car.”

“She hasn’t walked in months! She had the slims, the wasting disease, we buried her. She died! She should have stayed dead! Alive, she could not have walked here!”

“Sir, your mother—”

“She’s not my mother! She’s my wife’s mother, and she’s cursed.” The noise had brought out my daughter, and he yelled at her to go back inside. Suddenly he fumbled for the knife at this waist. “I should have done this before. I didn’t think it would happen.”

Both the woman and the boy grabbed at him, but he brandished the machete at them and they backed off, protesting.

“Sir, you can’t do this! She’s not some kind of vampire, she’s alive! You made a mistake burying her and she came back.”

“There’s no mistake,” I said. “He’s right. He should end me now while he still can.”

“Mother?” My daughter had come around the back of the car. She was holding a gun, more nervously than my son-in-law carried his machete. It was an old one, hidden in the home for decades, found by my father during the years the Japanese invaded. “Mother?”

And then my daughter was on her knees beside the car, head in my lap, crying and begging forgiveness. I stroked her hair, soothing her. I told her there was nothing to forgive, she had not cursed me, her father had done that. She looked up at me. “I love you, dear,” I said. “But you must let your husband do this thing.”

“What thing?”

My son-in-law came forward and took her hand. “Come away from her. She is undead.”

“No, she’s alive! You know she’s alive!”

“No, she’s not! She walked to the car. She walked, do you hear?”

I interrupted them. “Of course I’m not alive, or I wouldn’t have been buried, would I?”

My daughter looked at me, stricken. Understanding seemed to seep into her features, but not the fear I dreaded. The two foreigners were silent now, watching. I looked at my son-in-law. “Will you cut off my head?”

He nodded, and gingerly offered a hand to help me from the car. I stood, a little more easily this time. The boy seemed about to speak, but the woman laid her hand on his arm. Shaking, my daughter pointed the gun she barely knew how to hold at them. I walked back toward the grave with my son.

We stopped at the edge. He looked at me with compassion. “You are ready?”

“Yes. Should I kneel, or lie down?”

“If you can kneel it would help.”

“You will have to help me do it, then. I have not fed and I’m weak.” He touched me again to help me kneel, then stood back, still afraid of me. I looked at my daughter, who glanced back at me and then looked away quickly. “Stand between us, please.” My son complied. The two foreigners watched uncomprehendingly, or rather, as if they could not bear what they understood.

I looked down at the emptiness. I was glad I would be leaving myself behind. Glad I was near my home, glad my family was safe. If my son had not come out, how long would I have had the strength to resist before the blood thirst took over?

I looked up at my son. “Take care of my daughter.”

“I will.”

“Thank you.” I bowed my head.


A trailer for A Field Guide to Surreal Botany, to which I contributed a small piece.


First book fiction en route to the U.S.!

A Field Guide to Surreal Botany is not only printed, but has shipped to the U.S. from Singapore. Woot!

My contribution is just a short piece in an anthology, but I’m happy. The publisher and artist did a truly lovely job putting everything together.

The Field Guide to Surreal Botany
Cover, A Field Guide to Surreal Botany


Thomas Huxley’s letter, on the death of his son

The below is from Leonard Huxley’s The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Quoted by Stephen Jay Gould.

A letter written in response to well-meant advice from Cambridge professor and priest Charles Kingsley.

14, Waverley Place, September 23, 1860.

My dear Kingsley,

I cannot sufficiently thank you, both on my wife’s account and my own, for your long and frank letter, and for all the hearty sympathy which it exhibits–and Mrs. Kingsley will, I hope, believe that we are no less sensible of her kind thought of us. To myself your letter was especially valuable, as it touched upon what I thought even more than upon what I said in my letter to you. My convictions, positive and negative, on all the matters of which you speak, are of long and slow growth and are firmly rooted. But the great blow which fell upon me seemed to stir them to their foundation, and had I lived a couple of centuries earlier I could have fancied a devil scoffing at me and them–and asking me what profit it was to have stripped myself of the hopes and consolations of the mass of mankind? To which my only reply was and is–Oh devil! truth is better than much profit. I have searched over the grounds of my belief, and if wife and child and name and fame were all to be lost to me one after the other as the penalty, still I will not lie.

And now I feel that it is due to you to speak as frankly as you have done to me. An old and worthy friend of mine tried some three or four years ago to bring us together–because, as he said, you were the only man who would do me any good. Your letter leads me to think he was right, though not perhaps in the sense he attached to his own words.

To begin with the great doctrine you discuss. I neither deny nor affirm the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing in it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it.

Pray understand that I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force, or the indestructibility of matter. Whoso clearly appreciates all that is implied in the falling of a stone can have no difficulty about any doctrine simply on account of its marvellousness. But the longer I live, the more obvious it is to me that the most sacred act of a man’s life is to say and to feel, “I believe such and such to be true.” All the greatest rewards and all the heaviest penalties of existence cling about that act. The universe is one and the same throughout; and if the condition of my success in unravelling some little difficulty of anatomy or physiology is that I shall rigorously refuse to put faith in that which does not rest on sufficient evidence, I cannot believe that the great mysteries of existence will be laid open to me on other terms. It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions. I dare not if I would.

Measured by this standard, what becomes of the doctrine of immortality?

You rest in your strong conviction of your personal existence, and in the instinct of the persistence of that existence which is so strong in you as in most men.

To me this is as nothing. That my personality is the surest thing I know–may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties. I have champed up all that chaff about the ego and the non-ego, about noumena and phenomena, and all the rest of it, too often not to know that in attempting even to think of these questions, the human intellect flounders at once out of its depth.

It must be twenty years since, a boy, I read Hamilton’s essay on the unconditioned, and from that time to this, ontological speculation has been a folly to me. When Mansel took up Hamilton’s argument on the side of orthodoxy (!) I said he reminded me of nothing so much as the man who is sawing off the sign on which he is sitting, in Hogarth’s picture. But this by the way.

I cannot conceive of my personality as a thing apart from the phenomena of my life. When I try to form such a conception I discover that, as Coleridge would have said, I only hypostatise a word, and it alters nothing if, with Fichte, I suppose the universe to be nothing but a manifestation of my personality. I am neither more nor less eternal than I was before.

Nor does the infinite difference between myself and the animals alter the case. I do not know whether the animals persist after they disappear or not. I do not even know whether the infinite difference between us and them may not be compensated by THEIR persistence and MY cessation after apparent death, just as the humble bulb of an annual lives, while the glorious flowers it has put forth die away.

Surely it must be plain that an ingenious man could speculate without end on both sides, and find analogies for all his dreams. Nor does it help me to tell me that the aspirations of mankind–that my own highest aspirations even–lead me towards the doctrine of immortality. I doubt the fact, to begin with, but if it be so even, what is this but in grand words asking me to believe a thing because I like it.

Science has taught to me the opposite lesson. She warns me to be careful how I adopt a view which jumps with my preconceptions, and to require stronger evidence for such belief than for one to which I was previously hostile.

My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonise with my aspirations.

Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.

There are, however, other arguments commonly brought forward in favour of the immortality of man, which are to my mind not only delusive but mischievous. The one is the notion that the moral government of the world is imperfect without a system of future rewards and punishments. The other is: that such a system is indispensable to practical morality. I believe that both these dogmas are very mischievous lies.

With respect to the first, I am no optimist, but I have the firmest belief that the Divine Government (if we may use such a phrase to express the sum of the “customs of matter”) is wholly just. The more I know intimately of the lives of other men (to say nothing of my own), the more obvious it is to me that the wicked does NOT flourish nor is the righteous punished. But for this to be clear we must bear in mind what almost all forget, that the rewards of life are contingent upon obedience to the WHOLE law–physical as well as moral–and that moral obedience will not atone for physical sin, or vice versa.

The ledger of the Almighty is strictly kept, and every one of us has the balance of his operations paid over to him at the end of every minute of his existence.

Life cannot exist without a certain conformity to the surrounding universe–that conformity involves a certain amount of happiness in excess of pain. In short, as we live we are paid for living.

And it is to be recollected in view of the apparent discrepancy between men’s acts and their rewards that Nature is juster than we. She takes into account what a man brings with him into the world, which human justice cannot do. If I, born a bloodthirsty and savage brute, inheriting these qualities from others, kill you, my fellow-men will very justly hang me, but I shall not be visited with the horrible remorse which would be my real punishment if, my nature being higher, I had done the same thing.

The absolute justice of the system of things is as clear to me as any scientific fact. The gravitation of sin to sorrow is as certain as that of the earth to the sun, and more so–for experimental proof of the fact is within reach of us all–nay, is before us all in our own lives, if we had but the eyes to see it.

Not only, then, do I disbelieve in the need for compensation, but I believe that the seeking for rewards and punishments out of this life leads men to a ruinous ignorance of the fact that their inevitable rewards and punishments are here.

If the expectation of hell hereafter can keep me from evil-doing, surely a fortiori the certainty of hell now will do so? If a man could be firmly impressed with the belief that stealing damaged him as much as swallowing arsenic would do (and it does), would not the dissuasive force of that belief be greater than that of any based on mere future expectations?

And this leads me to my other point.

As I stood behind the coffin of my little son the other day, with my mind bent on anything but disputation, the officiating minister read, as a part of his duty, the words, “If the dead rise not again, let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” I cannot tell you how inexpressibly they shocked me. Paul had neither wife nor child, or he must have known that his alternative involved a blasphemy against all that was best and noblest in human nature. I could have laughed with scorn. What! because I am face to face with irreparable loss, because I have given back to the source from whence it came, the cause of a great happiness, still retaining through all my life the blessings which have sprung and will spring from that cause, I am to renounce my manhood, and, howling, grovel in bestiality? Why, the very apes know better, and if you shoot their young, the poor brutes grieve their grief out and do not immediately seek distraction in a gorge.

Kicked into the world a boy without guide or training, or with worse than none, I confess to my shame that few men have drunk deeper of all kinds of sin than I. Happily, my course was arrested in time–before I had earned absolute destruction–and for long years I have been slowly and painfully climbing, with many a fall, towards better things. And when I look back, what do I find to have been the agents of my redemption? The hope of immortality or of future reward? I can honestly say that for these fourteen years such a consideration has not entered my head. No, I can tell you exactly what has been at work. “Sartor Resartus” led me to know that a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology. Secondly, science and her methods gave me a resting-place independent of authority and tradition. Thirdly, love opened up to me a view of the sanctity of human nature, and impressed me with a deep sense of responsibility.

If at this moment I am not a worn-out, debauched, useless carcass of a man, if it has been or will be my fate to advance the cause of science, if I feel that I have a shadow of a claim on the love of those about me, if in the supreme moment when I looked down into my boy’s grave my sorrow was full of submission and without bitterness, it is because these agencies have worked upon me, and not because I have ever cared whether my poor personality shall remain distinct for ever from the All from whence it came and whither it goes.

And thus, my dear Kingsley, you will understand what my position is. I may be quite wrong, and in that case I know I shall have to pay the penalty for being wrong. But I can only say with Luther, “Gott helfe mir, Ich kann nichts anders.”

I know right well that 99 out of 100 of my fellows would call me atheist, infidel, and all the other usual hard names. As our laws stand, if the lowest thief steals my coat, my evidence (my opinions being known) would not be received against him. [The law with respect to oaths was reformed in 1869.]

But I cannot help it. One thing people shall not call me with justice and that is–a liar. As you say of yourself, I too feel that I lack courage; but if ever the occasion arises when I am bound to speak, I will not shame my boy.

I have spoken more openly and distinctly to you than I ever have to any human being except my wife.

If you can show me that I err in premises or conclusion, I am ready to give up these as I would any other theories. But at any rate you will do me the justice to believe that I have not reached my conclusions without the care befitting the momentous nature of the problems involved.

And I write this the more readily to you, because it is clear to me that if that great and powerful instrument for good or evil, the Church of England, is to be saved from being shivered into fragments by the advancing tide of science–an event I should be very sorry to witness, but which will infallibly occur if men like Samuel of Oxford are to have the guidance of her destinies–it must be by the efforts of men who, like yourself, see your way to the combination of the practice of the Church with the spirit of science. Understand that all the younger men of science whom I know intimately are ESSENTIALLY of my way of thinking. (I know not a scoffer or an irreligious or an immoral man among them, but they all regard orthodoxy as you do Brahmanism.) Understand that this new school of the prophets is the only one that can work miracles, the only one that can constantly appeal to nature for evidence that it is right, and you will comprehend that it is of no use to try to barricade us with shovel hats and aprons, or to talk about our doctrines being “shocking.”

I don’t profess to understand the logic of yourself, Maurice, and the rest of your school, but I have always said I would swear by your truthfulness and sincerity, and that good must come of your efforts. The more plain this was to me, however, the more obvious the necessity to let you see where the men of science are driving, and it has often been in my mind to write to you before.

If I have spoken too plainly anywhere, or too abruptly, pardon me, and do the like to me.

My wife thanks you very much for your volume of sermons.

Ever yours very faithfully,

T.H. Huxley.



Years ago I wake, and my home is gone.
No bed. No flat walls.
No ground.
Instead I float on the air rushing past,
Stare into the hole before me,
As the whole of space time becomes a wind tunnel.

It’s not so bad.

For years, the flow of air allows me to swoop and dive and soar.
For years, the push of air keeps me in my place.

Sometimes I turn length and breadth to the wind,
Let it blow me where it wills,
But there is no end to its depth and height.

Sometimes I shut my eyes against the rush of air.

Sometimes I cry and rage in the safety of the roar.

But today I wake, and my home is gone.
I am on a road.
The wind is rushing past,
Roaring down the mountains ahead, and
I am flying into the wind,
Rigging my sails and my self for optimal speed.
I am skilled in the ways of wind.
I will cross the mountains.

Snow blown from peaks beyond my reach strikes the windshield.
The car shudders at the gusts.

Sometimes I rage and sing in the face of the roar.


Unsold Gary Braunbeck interview

This is the full-length version of an interview I conducted with author Gary Braunbeck, sometime in June 2007. It did not get sold in this or two abridged versions, but that’s not Braunbeck’s fault. Braunbeck is a good writer and a fascinating conversationalist, so I thought I’d share the interview.

Listening to Gary Braunbeck talk about his writing—or about anything at all—one gets the impression he has thought long and deeply about a broad variety of subjects.  This is unsurprising in the writer of such works as Prodigal Blues, Mr. Hands, and We Now Pause for Station Identification. In the last five years, Braunbeck has racked up three Stoker awards and one International Horror Guild award for his work, and yet I have difficulty thinking of what I’ve read as simply horror stories.  Braunbeck’s tales are a combination of skilled writing, disturbing imagery, and fantastical situations (sometimes set in reality as we know it, but often straying beyond it), but soaring above all these is a penetrating, compassionate insight into the human condition.

The old adage is to “write what you know,” and despite the nature of his work, Braunbeck does this. The imagination that created Grendel in Prodigal Blues, or devised The Ballad of Road Mama and Daddy Bliss, would not be nearly as good at reaching into the reader’s head and hooking us on his stories if not for Braunbeck’s own experiences.

Submitted for your consideration: Braunbeck’s 2006 novel, Prodigal Blues.  For those who have not read it, Prodigal Blues is a novel set in the all-too-real world of child pornography.  The story encompasses a suspenseful escape attempt and its aftermath, along the way deftly grappling with such issues as the denial of bystanders, victim guilt, and the demands of compassion. But the care with which Braunbeck approaches such a difficult subject is astonishing, and the psychological profiles of the characters very realistic.  I ask him if he drew on any personal experiences for this novel.

Braunbeck shares two experiences, the first from his childhood, when his “nice middle-to-lower middle class neighborhood” was devastated when “virtually everybody on our block was laid off at the same time.” Without blame, he describes the devastation when a factory suddenly closes, and hundreds of adults “used to being on their feet 10-12 hours in front of a lathe machine” suddenly have nothing to do.

“When you have the threat of poverty combined with alcohol, things tend to go wrong in a hurry. The kids in my neighborhood started a sad little game in which we came out in the morning to see who had the most bruises or cuts.” Braunbeck says this without self-pity, merely as the predictable consequence of a suddenly bereft community, and you can hear the writer’s perspective comprehending the awfulness of the situation for both children and adults.

The second experience Braunbeck describes happened in the course of a job. At the time, Braunbeck was working as a janitor. “I got a call one night from the owner of the janitorial company: ‘I need to get five guys together to do an emergency cleanup at a residence.’ I knew exactly where he was going, because about five days before this, a man in our area had snapped and killed his family.” Explaining that clean-up waited until the police were through with their investigation, he goes on: “I got to clean up the kids’ room. Something like that stays with you…You can see the arc of desperation and abuse, and the road that something can take if you’re not careful. I view these stories as cautionary.

“I probably carried that particular incident around for 20-22 years before I was able to get enough distance between myself and the guy who went in to clean up that night.”

But what is it like confronting such subject matter? Braunbeck explained that, “I’ve found that when something really profound happens in your life, if you try to write it down immediately, it almost never works, because you’re still too close.”

Braunbeck does have one exception to this, the story Duty, which earned him his first Stoker award and was written just after his mother’s death.  Duty begins with the memorable line, “Mom woke up just as the priest was giving her last rites,” and that was exactly what had happened three days earlier.  Braunbeck struggled with the story at first. “I’d delete it, write it again, delete it, write it again, and finally I realized I’d never write anything until I got this out of my system.” The story itself, of course, goes well beyond the actual events, but the strength required to allow such a story to pull itself out and appear on paper is considerable. “You can’t really discuss where stories like these come from without discussing the state you were in at the time—it’s a little like method acting, you have to be able to draw on actual experiences and emotions. In any kind of genre where you’re altering reality, you have to make doubly sure that the ground you’re writing in is pure.”

Perhaps his stories are powerful to readers because they are powerful to Braunbeck, too. This may be why he finds himself disliking his best stories. “Do you know how I can tell—the way I use to gauge whether a piece of mine is ready to go out? When I finish it, if I really, really hate, loathe, and despise the thing, it’s usually ok.  It’s when I really, really like it that there’s a problem.  I think that if I hate a piece of work the minute it’s finished, that means the story came in and kicked myself and my ego out the door. It made itself the overwhelming factor, which is the way it should be. If it didn’t, then it wrote it the way I wanted to write it.”

Braunbeck’s advice to writers is to “Forget genre, it will only hobble the story.” As he points out, to set out to write a horror story, a science fiction story, or a thriller immediately limits and changes the story.  “You’ll unconsciously start pulling tropes from the genre into the story,” he explains. “I write cross-genre—a majority of what I’ve written can be set into any of several categories… You write the story as it has to be written.   If you have cowboys, then they have to yippee-ki-yay their way into the story.”

Braunbeck doesn’t see himself as a pure horror writer. “I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that could be classified as genuinely scary—my stuff is more on the disturbing side… If it turns out it lands more on the darker side of the fence, then so be it.”

Stories typically come announced. “It’s usually an image. Most of the time, maybe 70% of the time, an image pops into my head, and I’ll look at it from various angles… The other 30% of the time it’s when two people in my head start talking to each other, and usually I come into it in the middle of the conversation, and have to figure out what’s going on.”

Readers, publishers, and others seem happy with the results of this approach. The short story Rami Temporales was recently adapted into the short film One of Those Faces by Stranger Things—inspiring an accompanying song—and We Now Pause for Station Identification has been optioned.  Braunbeck has also begun podcasting.

Braunbeck is not put off by the demands of adaptation. “I’m just going to enjoy the heck out of this while I can,”  he says. Speaking of the adaptation process for One of Those Faces, “I’ve seen all three drafts of the script, and he’s [Earl Newton, Stranger Things executive producer] incorporated every suggestion of mine, and while it’s radically different from the story, the spine of the story is still there. And that’s what the adaptation process is all about.”

“It’s always interesting to see—over the years I’ve seen other people’s work adapted and I’ve wondered how they’ve felt with that, and this is first time I’ve been through that myself.” Working with another producer on We Now Pause for Station Identification has been quite enjoyable. “He’ll say, ‘Not sure what to do with this, any ideas?’ And I’ll send him a few ideas, and he’ll say, ‘This one works, I’ll use this.’ Both me and the story have been treated with a great deal of care and respect.”

The ease with which Braunbeck is adapting to these different media makes sense when you consider his influences. “There are three major influences in my work that have not changed since the time that I first decided to take up writing… One is the movies of Sam Peckinpah, [one is] the songs of Harry Chapin—because one of the things I always admired about Chapin was that he didn’t just write songs, he wrote short stories in music form, and they followed the structure of a short story. You have a protagonist, you have a problem the protagonist is confronted by, and by the end the protagonist has either overcome it or been overcome by it.

“And the third, and the biggest influence on me, was Rod Serling. Not just from the Twilight Zone, but the other works he did. Most of what I learned about presenting dialogue and characterization I learned from Serling’s work.” Braunbeck explains, “Most of the [screen]writers at that time had limited resources—they couldn’t do anything visually, so instead they did it the only way they knew how, they did it in this incredible dialogue.”

Speaking to his personal responsibilities as a writer, Braunbeck said, “I don’t like to deal in absolutes. Life isn’t made of absolutes. Life is filled with grays, and sometimes life comes down to the lesser of two evils… Some people say that there’s really no room for morality in horror, but of all the genres, to me horror is the one most in need of a strong moral core. Sometimes it’s a vindictive moral core, like the Brothers Grimm stories… At least in my work I know there’s a strong moral center to the story.” Again, it’s clear that the reason the stories make us care is because the writer cares himself.

Braunbeck’s latest novel, Mr. Hands, is being released this August. So, if you value imaginative, well-written stories with an edge—if you want a thrilling story that goes beyond itself into something more—then the next time you pick up a Braunbeck story and find yourself enthralled, be happy you can enjoy it. Remember—

Gary Braunbeck doesn’t like it at all.


The writer’s vow of chastity

Just as Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg wrote the film maker’s vow of chastity (also know as Dogme 95), so Bart has proposed a writer’s vow of chastity.

A draft of the rules as of August 4, 2007:

The writer’s vow of chastity

The writer will use no modifiers.
No adverbs.
No adjectives.
The writer should act as a behaviorist.
No words describing emotion.
The writer will not make the reader directly privy to a character’s thoughts (no interior dialogue or interior monologue).
The writer may break these rules only when it is unavoidable.

The above may be summarized as, “Not doing the reader’s work for them.”

The summary references advice from C.S. Lewis to his students:

Don’t say it was “delightful;” make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do the job for me.”


Smart because I’m stupid, stupid because I’m smart

Some people are smart because understanding comes easily to them. I, on the other hand, might argue that what smarts I have come from what I don’t understand.

Take, for example, mirrors. There is a basic rule about mirrors that many take for granted, and that is when we focus on a mirror image, we focus not on the mirror but on the things it’s reflecting. Optometrists use this all the time to avoid having twenty-foot-long rooms. Using mirrors, light bounces from the eye chart letters twenty feet before hitting the patient’s eyes; hence the 20 in 20/20. (20/20 means that at twenty feet, you see at the same clarity as a normal human. Some few see more clearly; 20/10 means you see an object at twenty feet as clearly as it would appear at ten to most people.)

But this presented problems to me because I could not understand how it worked. Here were my questions:

How does my eye know how far to focus in order to see the other object clearly? If I’m looking at a mirror that’s reflecting something out of my line of sight—a plain cube, say—how would I know, without a context, where to focus to see it at the appropriate clarity for my vision? How know if it was five inches a side, or five feet? All my brain knows is that the cube is some distance farther from me than the mirror. Yet somehow my eye focuses. (Briefly I wondered why, if my brain can “decide” how distant a thing is, it can’t “pretend” it’s closer so my myopic eyes see it clearly? I’m a highly near-sighted person who sees clearly about six inches from my eyes, after which the world begins to blur. Don’t worry, I figured it out.)

Why can’t I take a picture of the mirror itself, or glass, for that matter? Saying it’s because they’re transparent only raises the issue of what, exactly, makes transparency possible in the first place. A thing that both allows an unimpeded passage of light through, but can also reflect that light almost perfectly?

It was all too weird for me.

But I understood the basics of refraction, and eventually (I’m ashamed to admit how long this took) I came up with a mental picture to understand this at least partly.

First, I had to acknowledge that transparency was not a focusing issue (more about transparency later). Then I imagined a camera, an object, and a mirror at the points of an equilateral triangle. The mirror is angled so that it reflects the object to the camera, and the camera to the object.

The camera’s view includes both the object and the mirror. But the representation of the object the camera sees via the mirror has traveled twice as far, and so is less clear. As was my understanding, until I thought of this.

Then another question occurred to me. If the camera is absorbing both its direct view of the object, and the reflected view, perhaps a piece of film with both those bits of information was more accurate somehow than simply seeing the object clearly. Then I imagined multiple mirrors, each angling a different aspect of the object onto the same point. The results would have much more complete information about the object than a simple photograph. We might not interpret it well on a flat surface. Then I thought of holograms, and suddenly my understanding of the interference pattern that creates a hologram, and the apparent chaos of a piece of holographic film, improved sharply.

Most of the things in my life that I understand well originate like this, with something obvious to others but not to me. And that’s why I say that I’m smart because I’m stupid.

Stupid because I’m smart

Still, I’m also stupid because I’m smart. There are a bunch of cuttlefish in a lab in Pennsylvania that are demonstrably better able to learn than I am, Here’s why:

Jean Boal, an associate professor at Millersville University, studies cuttlefish intelligence, as well as that of other cephalopods. She has devised a fairly complex test, demanding not only learned association, but unlearning it and learning a new one, then going back and forth in a process called serial reversal learning. They’re pretty good at it.

The cuttlefish goes through a door, into a tank within a tank. It’s small, with opaque walls. To both sides of the cuttlefish are two openings into the larger tank, and in front of it is an object such as a plastic plant.

The two openings are marked differently, one framed with broad, vivid stripes, one a solid color. Both appear to be open to the cuttlefish, but one is closed using a transparent piece of plastic. If the object in front of the cuttlefish is a plastic plant, then the solid-framed doorway is open. If the object is a rock, then the striped doorway is open.

Cuttlefish are smart enough to figure this out, and act accordingly to obtain access to the rest of the tank.

Here’s why I’m not as swift as a cuttlefish. There are two good routes to my workplace, one on the highway, one on a street paralleling the highway. If I stepped out the door to see a mockingbird sat on my mailbox, and this was followed by a wreck on the highway necessitating my taking the street route, I would not correlate these things. Even if every time the mockingbird was on the mailbox there was a wreck on the highway, I sincerely doubt I would notice the correlation. For one thing, I’m smart enough to have a lot of things on my mind, which might make noticing and retaining and associating the data more difficult. For another, I’m informed enough to understand the basics of physics, and this tells me that birds on mailboxes are not catalysts for car wrecks. So the very simple association the cuttlefish makes would be beyond me.

Dr. Boal say that “the ultimate question is, am I smart enough to find out how smart they are?” Well, Dr. Boal, I can tell you one thing—they are most definitely smarter than I.

A last note

Transparency and reflection are still interesting to me. Think about it. Here’s a piece of glass, and it allows light to pass through in a straight line, unimpeded so far as we can tell (I’m assuming no impurities are present to tint or otherwise distort the glass). We look through the piece of glass, and we see what’s on the other side. But that same piece of glass can, if I view it from the right perspective, reflect all that light instead of letting it pass through. And my brain lets me see it clearly, despite the focusing distance being farther than the glass itself. Water and other things are similarly challenging.

It’s as though the property of the transparent object—allowing light through, or reflecting it—is dependent on the perspective and behavior of the observer. I know this is very obvious. But it seems to me that this is a good analogy for some of the more mysterious behaviors in the universe. It’s not that something magical is happening. It’s that we’re seeing different facets of the same thing, and we just can’t see the thing itself yet. Because it’s transparent.


Spineless Smarts, NOVA: Kings of Camouflage. Interview conducted on July 26, 2005 by Gisela Kaufmann, producer-director of “Kings of Camouflage,” and edited by Rima Chaddha, assistant editor of NOVA online. Retrieved July 31, 2007 from


A not very learnèd peace

(an attempt at the medieval sestina form, with apologies to Kobayashi Issa)

If you seek vengeance, you must dig two graves:
one for your object, one for you. To leave
behind peace in order to pursue their
lack of peace; to kill my joy to reach the
end of theirs? That is death. So I turn to
Jesus’ words: Let the dead bury the dead.

And yet, I count myself among the dead.
In dreams I watch as the worm turns and graves
its way through gut, brain, and bone, helpless to
move, but free to grieve. Worms do not ask leave.
They know I will lie as dead, leaving the
doing to others able to live their

lives. I am so jealous! I envy their
cheerful unawareness of their own dead
lives. I grudge their blind hopes, reaching for the
heavens while the world prepares them their graves.
In this mood, I can hardly wait to leave
this mad ignorance, cannot endure to

breathe my own breath, can barely see through to
the next minute, hour, and day in their
presence. And yet. And yet. Trees will still leave,
putting forth root and fruit. Worms will turn. Dead,
I see the world of dew is built on graves,
but the graves are brimming with seeds and the

living elements arising from the
deaths of a thousand stars. Who am I to
question? But still questions hover like graves
over letters in words that believe their
own meaning, believe in answers, are dead
certain they define something real. They leave

doubt to the philosophers. Let me leave
off doubt! Give me strength to dive into the
absurd, creating in spite of the dead
all around me, writing unfettered to
nobody, pursuing my thoughts to their
end, and free to leave the dead to their graves.

Art graves itself on souls, giving no leave
For artists to flee their craft. Leave the dull
to worry. The dead will bury the dead.


Thomas’ fossil

Split a stone, and you will find me there,
In an anoxic world my soul’s flame dies.
Pain and obligation and despite permeate me,
seeping into every pore,
replacing animal with mineral in a slow, relentless process.

All is potential; death by stillness.

Let the kinetic overwhelm me.
Let a equal gravity.
Drop this stone
from a great, great height—

set me free.


Missing the message of the fisherman and the jinny

Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment is a classic psychoanalytic examination of fairy tales and fables. The problem is that Bettelheim is perhaps too focused on Freudian interpretation, to the exclusion of alternative possibilities. Bettelheim was never formally trained in psychology. He was a philosopher, whose psychological training originated in his own psychoanalysis and self-education. His limited perspective resulted in one of the most spectacular pieces of popular misinformation in psychology, the idea that autism was caused by cold, uncaring mothers. This misconception inflicted unnecessary pain on perhaps thousands of families.

But here I want to talk about both a smaller and a larger issue: hidden messages in children’s stories. My husband’s psychologist gave him a copy of Bettelheim’s explication of The Fisherman and the Jinny to read, and I’d like to offer an alternative to Bettelheim’s view. Not that a psychoanalytic interpretation is wrong per se, but it’s far from the only perspective.

Bettelheim’s psychoanalysis: pleasure principle vs. reality principle

First, let’s review the story itself. From Bettelheim:

A poor fisherman casts his net into the sea four times. First he catches a dead jackass, the second time a pitcher full of sand and mud. The third effort gains him less than the preceding ones: potsherds and broken glass. The fourth time around, the fisherman brings up a copper jar. As he opens it, a huge cloud emerges, which materializes into a giant Jinny (genie) that threatens to kill him, despite all the fisherman’s entreaties. The fisherman saves himself by his wits: he taunts the Jinny by doubting aloud that the huge Jinny could ever have fitted into such a small vessel; thus he induces the Jinny to return into the jar to prove it. Then the fisherman quickly caps and seals the jar and throws it back into the ocean.

The Jinny’s unreasonable anger against the fisherman springs from the length of its imprisonment.

As [the Jinny] sat confined in the bottle during the first hundred years, he “said in my heart, ‘Whoso shall release me, him will I enrich for ever and ever.’ But the full century went by, and when no one set me free, I entered upon the second five score saying: ‘Whoso shall release me, for him will I open the hoards of the earth.’ Still no one set me free, and thus four hundred years passed away. Then quoth I, ‘Whoso shall release me, for him will I fulfill three wishes.’ Yet no one set me free. Thereupon I waxed wroth with exceeding wrath and said to myself, ‘Whoso shall release me from this time forth, him will I slay….'”

For Bettelheim, this reasoning is the reasoning of the abandoned child, dealing with separation anxiety. The irrational aspect demonstrates that this is not “adult morality” but childish, for according to Bettelheim, to an adult “the longer an imprisonment lasts, the more grateful the prisoner should be to the person who liberates him.” The point of the fairy tale is for the child to be able to put himself into the place of the Jinny and be safely angry at his parents for his separation anxiety, or to put himself into the place of the fisherman and deal with his anger.

Bettelheim’s Jinny represents immaturity, uncomfortable emotions, and the pleasure principle; the fisherman represents maturity, rationality, and the reality principle. The pleasure principle “drives us to gain immediate satisfaction of our wants or to seek violent revenge for our frustrations,” while the reality principle states “we must be willing to accept many frustrations in order to gain lasting rewards.” According to Bettelheim, choosing the reality principle gains the fisherman success.

Bettelheim also points out that by identifying with the fisherman, who is small in comparison with the Jinny, the small child sees him- or herself as outwitting the larger Jinny/adult figure. As Bettelheim observes, “children know that, short of doing adults’ bidding, they have only one way to be safe from adult wrath: through outwitting them.”

This level of interpretation is not a bad or wrong one, but it’s not the whole story; it’s what happens when you cast your net once. Let’s cast it a second time and see what comes up.

The fairy tale as an introduction to reality

I clearly remember the first encounter I had with this story, and my response was strongly negative toward the fisherman. While his life was threatened by the Jinny, his solution was poor: tricking the Jinny back into the jar and throwing him into the sea. This did nothing to address the horribly unfair situation of the Jinny, and seemed likewise thoughtless of future fishermen. In the Arabian Nights, the fisherman promises to build a home by the shore and warn other fisherman of the perils of copper jars they may pull up in their nets. But this is a short-term solution for a seemingly immortal creature. My childish solution, in the parameters of the fairy tale, was that the fisherman should take the jar to the nearest king or wizard for their help.

While the madness of the Jinny may safely allow a child to feel unacceptable anger, it’s not solely childish, irrational anger standing in opposition to the fisherman’s adult morality. If adult morality followed rational behavior most psychologists (and lawyers) would be out of work. And if the fisherman’s life were magically extended and he were trapped in a small, sensory-depriving container that barely held him, it’s unlikely his sanity would be preserved for long.

For me as a child, the primary message of The Fisherman and the Jinny is not that we must “accept many frustrations in order to gain lasting rewards,” but precisely the opposite. I found it very upsetting. Looking back as an adult, I can understand why, and I still don’t see the fairy-tale justice and reward-for-hard-work message Bettelheim finds in it. Here’s what I see:

  • A poor fisherman’s efforts to feed himself and his family are frustrated as he tries four times to earn his living, and gets nothing for his pains but a chance to die.
  • A Jinny is trapped for centuries in a copper jar, and driven mad by his frustration. Trapped back in the jar, he is thrown back in the sea, to look forward to more centuries of madness. The evolution of his anger for the next fisherman is not a pleasant thing to consider.
  • Once he’s saved himself, the fisherman is not good about considering other people. Even if you take the version where he lives on the shore to warn other fisherman, he’s only there for his lifetime, and he knows the Jinny will be in his jar for centuries. Throwing the jar back is selfish, lacking concern for both future fishermen and the Jinny.

In other words, when one analyses behavior and its consequences for the characters, the primary message of The Fisherman and the Jinny seems to be that sometimes nobody is happy, and the world is not fair. This is an important message, and one that is often overlooked by parents who want to (a) make their children happy and (b) entice them to good behavior by promises of rewards. As a child, when I read the Arabian Nights and was upset by this story, I was safely being introduced to difficult situations that I would encounter in real life. It was an opportunity to express the outrage in advance and learn how to deal with it.

The Jinny as daimon

Reading with adult eyes, I was struck by another interpretation. Finding myself identifying with the Jinny, and probably reminded because of the association of jinny/genie with genius, I saw the Jinny as what existential psychologist Rollo May called a creative daimon. Let’s cast our interpretive net a third time and see if this works.

May describes the daimonic as that which overwhelms us. Eros, anger, the desire for power, the desire to leave your mark on the world: all these things are the daimonic in us. When it is repressed and not integrated into an authentic person, it comes out violently and angrily. For May, the daimonic must be applied constructively or it will erupt destructively. Demonic possession is a culturally specific expression of violent eruption. Fear of the daimonic arises from the anxiety inherent in the creative process.

Every time a person creates—and this includes loving, taking a moral stance, and so forth—that person is undergoing an interactive process with the world. The world and the person are both changed. Anxiety is produced by the changes required by the process. There is also anxiety in the trust needed for the leap of faith before the act of creation, because the creator may be wrong in his choice or understanding or perspective; in other words, the creation may be a mistake.

So if we view the Jinny as the creative daimon, we see him as the repressed urge to leave our mark. The urge to love, to write, to paint, to change the world. The death threat to the fisherman is the anxiety posed by this urge. It’s no accident or mere plot point that the Jinny can change shape; the mutability of the genie is a metaphor for the change the creator undergoes in every work. Likewise, the immortality of the Jinny can be interpreted as the wish for the changes we effect in the world to persist beyond our lifetime, or beyond our immediate sphere of influence. The fisherman is the person in May’s third stage of development, the “ordinary” adult ego. He has passed through the stages of innocence and rebellion and learned responsibility but not courage; he conforms to the conventional and does not express his daimonic side. He has an opportunity to deal with his daimon, but chooses instead to bottle it up and throw it into the sea. And the daimon agrees to this, in effect, by going back into the bottle, in much the same way that many people bottle up their own creative urges.

The creative adult, in the fourth stage of development, has accepted her daimon and integrated it into her life. She understands both the thrownness of reality (the things we cannot change) and her control over it (her will and creative principle). She would find another way to grapple with the Jinny: perhaps giving it a different, safer target for its anger, or again, taking the closed jar to a wise person to seek help. Courage and responsibility not just for herself but for the next person are inherent in this state.

From this perspective, the message of the fairy tale is one I don’t like. It promotes the mediocre, non-threatening, non-integrated road which leads to the life of a selfish, poor fisherman. It tells the child to fear the mutable Jinny and his power. But the truth is that those who release the Jinny and pass through the fear of death and change, those will learn self-actualization and authenticity. Those, the Jinny will enrich for ever and ever.


Ema Bozena Reif

Ema was my grandmama, on my mother’s side. Born August 27, 1911, she died April 5, 2005, after a brief bout with pneumonia and failing kidneys (she had kidney cancer). She was born in Prague, Czech Republic, and married for over fifty years to Gustav Nevenko Reif. First date in Prague, early 1930s(This picture was taken by a street photographer on their first date.) Together they hid Jews in their home during World War II, faced down Nazis, escaped Communists, and started building a new life in Australia. After two years they moved to Texas, and later lived in Italy and Thailand before settling permanently in Texas.

Grandmama had a wonderful wit, and an elegantly inclusive "such as we make manners" attitude that charmed friends and strangers. She taught me sewing and embroidery, and contributed significantly to my stubborn streak.

Like my mother-in-law, Billie Page Odom, she was a strong woman with a great sense of style and self. She also had a sly sense of humor, and was not above using her age for humorous effect. When she was a little over eighty, and still moving around pretty easily, a friend of Grandmama’s fell and broke her hip. After surgery she used a walker, and finally a cane. Grandmama was living with my mother at the time, and got Grandpapa’s old cane out of the closet and started using it. Mother, concerned, asked if she was having trouble with her leg. Grandmama said no, she just wanted to practice. After Mother put up the cane, Grandmama spent the next couple of weeks cheerfully complaining about how her daughter took her cane away. Of course the entire thing was a joke.

She loved animals, and found one of Mother’s cats, Mitzy, particularly intelligent and multilingual. "No matter what language I speak, Mitzy understands perfectly."


Tanka no. 1

Cloudburst passes, and
reflecting everything
but itself, the world
glimmers on. The world and I
Are much alike on some days.


Alchemy (This is not marriage)

The quality of thrownness is not merciful.

Like elements inquisitive hands put in the crucible,
testing not the element itself, but its interactions. Will it
Laws older than Hammurabi, deeper than gravity,
push and pull and reduce us to our essence.
The electrical spark blasts through us,
aligning electrons,
bonding molecules,
and suddenly we are the philosopher’s stone
     the phoenix
     manna from heaven
Proof against the hottest flame, the heaviest blow.

This is not marriage, this is alchemy.