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Natural Gas is Not Lobster

This one chart summarizes what climate change is about.

Below is another chart. Basically, for 10,000 years  of recorded human history, there has never been temperature variation of  than 1 degree Centigrade. (There have been other temperature variations during the last few million years, but humans haven’t been around). image

In the last 100 years, temperatures have risen .6 degree Centigrade, and another .5 degree Centigrade is in the pipeline.  It generally takes 30 or 40 years for CO2 increases to result in temperature increases (although sometimes a threshold is reached, causing more temperature increase).

In 2007 the IPCC (an international science body) laid out the scenarios from best case to worst case. A1F1 is considered the “worst case scenario”  and B1 and B2 (now thought unattainable) required fast-action to prevent this.

IPCC said that limiting temperature increase for 2100 to 2 degrees Centigrade was “attainable” though not ideal and provides a good safety margin against catastrophe.  If carbon emissions were limited to 450 parts per million by 2050, then we’d have a pretty good short at limiting the increase to 2 degrees. (Pretty good = greater than 83% chance of attaining it).

In 2009 every nation pledged to support  on this 2 degree centigrade goal even though many scientists said limiting to 2 degrees is “not good enough.”

We are currently at 394.5 PPM and rising at 1.5 PPM per year (more or less). (But this rate of increase will accelerate when icecaps and Greenland melt — due very soon. Also wildfires like what we experienced in Texas will accelerate carbon emissions). image

Our current path is worse than A1F1. Despite the talk, there has not been any significant progress towards carbon reduction (aside from Europe, and California and soon — New York).

No one can predict human response to disasters, but scientists say that even current human stupidity would recognize the wisdom of veering off  the A1F1 path. How soon? No one will know.

A prediction by the world’s leading energy group (IEA) says that every year delaying investment in renewable energy infrastructure will end up costing the world $500 billion in greater infrastructure & disaster costs.

Since 2007, multiple scientific reports have suggested that limiting carbon emissions by 450 ppm in 2050 is essentially impossible. Right now they say 550-650 ppm is a more realistic scenario, and there is considerable controversy about what temperature increase this will bring. Right now the best prediction is 2.5 – 3 degrees, but there is considerable uncertainty. The “climate sensitivity” (defined as “What happens if CO2 levels in the atmosphere double? “See chart) could possibly mean  temperature increases as high as 4 degrees or higher.image

(I belong to 350.org, a world movement that says we should have zero emissions and that the only safe way is to bring carbon levels to 350 ppm — the same levels which humans had in 1985. The 350 ppm target is recommended  by James Hansen, one of the first scientists to go public about climate change in 1980. I should stress though that reaching this goal is 1)quixotic and 2)not conclusively been shown to be necessary. Mainstream scientific opinion suggests that humans can still do well at 400 or 425 ppm, but even that could change depending on what happens in the next 20 years).

You probably don’t see these kinds of facts on CNN, newspapers or the nightly news. Yet, I pretty much can guarantee you that every single leader in today’s world is familiar with this information. Hell, even the presidents of Exxon, Phillips and BP know this information. They listen to their own experts  who tell them a)the science is not settled about climate sensitivity and b)there will be short term economic disruption if humans took countermeasures to limit carbon emissions and c)the cost of building new infrastructure to support renewable energies will be expensive.

Absolutely it will be expensive (though not as bad as Republicans suggest). But what Republicans don’t say is that the costs will be more expensive with every passing year — especially if we have to accelerate the building of all this new infrastructure.  Faith Birol, the head of IEA said that by 2020 the costs of switching to renewable energies will be 3 or 4x as expensive than if we tried it today.  There are short term political benefits to refusing to finance a transition to renewable fuels. It is the failure of politicians (and the failure of Obama –let’s not kid ourselves) to make this a priority or even to bring the subject up which is continuing this problem.

One more thing — because it relates to Texas. In the last 2 years, Republicans have started to embrace “natural gas” as a solution to climate change. So has Obama. In fact, environmentalists cautiously embraced natural gas as a “transitional solution” to fight climate change. But in the last year or two, several dramatic scientific findings have challenged that strategy, so much so that environmentalists have disavowed natural gas as even a transitional solution.

There are three separate issues with natural gas.

  1. whether the use of natural gas instead of gasoline or coal will reduce smog.
  2. whether the “fracking process” (a new process to extract natural gas from the ground) is safe, whether it uses too much water, and whether it contaminates the water supply and
  3. whether natural gas improves the carbon emission situation. Please note that carbon emission question should be broken down into 2 parts: a)how much emissions the extraction process causes (i.e., how much methane it releases during extraction) and b)how much CO2 is used when a vehicle burns it.  Many natural gas companies tout B while conveniently ignoring A.

About 1, natural gas does indeed reduce smog by about 50%. That helps people with asthma and lung disorders and probably has an effect on cancer rates.
About 2, a lot of evidence in the past few years suggests that it is not safe, uses a lot of water and contaminates the water supply. But these are fixable problems, and I believe the natural gas industry will do their utmost to minimize these bad effects. (Do I trust them? No. But at least, improvements are within the realm of scientific possibility)
About 3, studies in the last year or so suggests that switching to natural gas for power plants doesn’t reduce  greenhouse gases long term in the slightest (and some  evidence  suggests that in the short term it actually is worse than coal for  greenhouse gas emissions). It is true that B (how much CO2 is emitted when the fuel is burned) is approximately 50% lower,  but A (how much methane is released during extraction) partially or fully offsets these reduced emissions.

Last Spring, a Cornell researcher presented a paper about natural gas and climate change. It was bitterly attacked by the oil and gas industry (and honestly, because of lack of data, the paper was full of unanswered questions). But two followup studies (here and here)   have confirmed this original assessment. Just a month ago one of the world’s leading climate change scientists published a peer-reviewed paper showing that it would take 200 years for the use of natural gas to have any beneficial effects on climate change. Even if we assume minimal leakage of methane (the biggest problem with natural gas and fracking), the comparative benefits of switching to natural gas are minimal and will kick in only after it is too late. (In contrast, the benefits of a solar powered plant or a wind energy generator come within 10 years).

The army of paid cheerleaders for the natural gas industry are trying to spread the message that natural gas is better and safer and that fracking is relatively safe.  But even if everything the natural gas  industry says is true, they will never be able to show that  the idea that natural gas will  reduce carbon emissions. All they can do is point to an alleged comparative advantage (that it is less dirty than coal), but  initial studies over the last year have cast serious doubt on even that claim.

So whenever a  politician like Obama or a TV pundit tells you that natural gas is clean and safe, they are feeding you bullshit while telling you it’s lobster.


Postscript.  I didn’t have time to talk about whether the world has enough renewable resources to power the world (even when taking into account reasonable projections of growth).  I have been reading a lot on this issue lately. Perhaps this merits a separate post, but here are two quick things to address this question. Mark Jacobsen, a Stanford climate scientists has studied this issue in depth. First, he gave a concise 5 minute interview about the subject in April 2012.

Second, he has done several analyses of energy needs and supply of renewable energies. One of his scientific analysis provided the basis for a cover story in Scientific American magazine in 2009 (download the PDF here). Also, he and Stuart Brand did a great debate at a TED conference about whether nuclear power ought to be in the mix. Jacobsen provided a lot of great charts (slides) and talking points in this lecture. Here, in this extended excerpt from a study press release, is his findings:

The raw energy sources that Jacobson found to be the most promising are, in order, wind, concentrated solar (the use of mirrors to heat a fluid), geothermal, tidal, solar photovoltaics (rooftop solar panels), wave and hydroelectric. He recommends against nuclear, coal with carbon capture and sequestration, corn ethanol and cellulosic ethanol, which is made of prairie grass. In fact, he found cellulosic ethanol was worse than corn ethanol because it results in more air pollution, requires more land to produce and causes more damage to wildlife.

To place the various alternatives on an equal footing, Jacobson first made his comparisons among the energy sources by calculating the impacts as if each alternative alone were used to power all the vehicles in the United States, assuming only “new-technology” vehicles were being used. Such vehicles include battery electric vehicles (BEVs), hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCVs), and “flex-fuel” vehicles that could run on a high blend of ethanol called E85.

Wind was by far the most promising, Jacobson said, owing to a better-than 99 percent reduction in carbon and air pollution emissions; the consumption of less than 3 square kilometers of land for the turbine footprints to run the entire U.S. vehicle fleet (given the fleet is composed of battery-electric vehicles); the saving of about 15,000 lives per year from premature air-pollution-related deaths from vehicle exhaust in the United States; and virtually no water consumption. By contrast, corn and cellulosic ethanol will continue to cause more than 15,000 air pollution-related deaths in the country per year, Jacobson asserted.

Because the wind turbines would require a modest amount of spacing between them to allow room for the blades to spin, wind farms would occupy about 0.5 percent of all U.S. land, but this amount is more than 30 times less than that required for growing corn or grasses for ethanol. Land between turbines on wind farms would be simultaneously available as farmland or pasture or could be left as open space.

Indeed, a battery-powered U.S. vehicle fleet could be charged by 73,000 to 144,000 5-megawatt wind turbines, fewer than the 300,000 airplanes the U.S. produced during World War II and far easier to build. Additional turbines could provide electricity for other energy needs.

“There is a lot of talk among politicians that we need a massive jobs program to pull the economy out of the current recession,” Jacobson said. “Well, putting people to work building wind turbines, solar plants, geothermal plants, electric vehicles and transmission lines would not only create jobs but would also reduce costs due to health care, crop damage and climate damage from current vehicle and electric power pollution, as well as provide the world with a truly unlimited supply of clean power.”

Jacobson said that while some people are under the impression that wind and wave power are too variable to provide steady amounts of electricity, his research group has already shown in previous research that by properly coordinating the energy output from wind farms in different locations, the potential problem with variability can be overcome and a steady supply of baseline power delivered to users.

Jacobson’s research is particularly timely in light of the growing push to develop biofuels, which he calculated to be the worst of the available alternatives. In their effort to obtain a federal bailout, the Big Three Detroit automakers are increasingly touting their efforts and programs in the biofuels realm, and federal research dollars have been supporting a growing number of biofuel-research efforts.

“That is exactly the wrong place to be spending our money. Biofuels are the most damaging choice we could make in our efforts to move away from using fossil fuels,” Jacobson said. “We should be spending to promote energy technologies that cause significant reductions in carbon emissions and air-pollution mortality, not technologies that have either marginal benefits or no benefits at all”.

“Obviously, wind alone isn’t the solution,” Jacobson said. “It’s got to be a package deal, with energy also being produced by other sources such as solar, tidal, wave and geothermal power.”

Postscript 2 : I wrote this post in a hurry, not bothering to provide citations or details about the natural gas life cycle analysis. Now let me flesh out these things.

Below is a lot of information and scientific research about a very controversial topic. As of Feb 2013, 5 studies are underway to measure the overall impact that natural gas use has on climate change (and specifically the amount of methane leakage). The first one by UT Austin concluded in Jan 2013.  Here are the Key findings of the early PNAS paper, based on the best available estimates on methane emissions from the EPA:

  • Assuming the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2009 leakage rate of 2.4% (from well to city), new natural gas combined cycle power plants reduce climate impacts compared to new coal plants; this case is true as long as leakage remains under 3.2%.

  • Assuming EPA’s estimates for leak rates, compressed natural gas (CNG)-fueled vehicles are not a viable mitigation strategy for climate change because of methane leakage from natural gas production, delivery infrastructure and from the vehicles themselves. For light-duty CNG cars to become a viable short-term climate strategy, methane leakage would need to be kept below 1.6% of total natural gas produced (approximately half the current amount for well to wheels – note difference from well to city).

  • Methane emissions would need to be cut by more than two-thirds to immediately produce climate benefits in heavy duty natural gas-powered trucks.

  • At current leakage rate estimates, converting a fleet of heavy duty diesel vehicles to natural gas would result in nearly 300 years of climate damage before any benefits were achieved.


Here’s the original Horwarth Cornell study:

While natural gas has been touted as a clean-burning fuel that produces less carbon dioxide than coal, ecologist Robert Howarth warns that we should be more concerned about methane leaking into the atmosphere during hydraulic fracturing.

Natural gas is mostly methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas, especially in the short term, with 105 times more warming impact, pound for pound, than carbon dioxide (CO2), Howarth said, adding that even small leaks make a big difference. He estimated that as much as 8 percent of the methane in shale gas leaks into the air during the lifetime of a hydraulic shale gas well — up to twice what escapes from conventional gas production.

“The take-home message of our study is that if you do an integration of 20 years following the development of the gas, shale gas is worse than conventional gas and is, in fact, worse than coal and worse than oil,” Howarth said. “We are not advocating for more coal or oil, but rather to move to a truly green, renewable future as quickly as possible. We need to look at the true environmental consequences of shale gas.”

Here is the National Center for Atmospheric Research study:

In summary, our results show that the substitution of gas for coal as an energy source results in increased rather than decreased global warming for many decades — out to the mid 22nd century for the 10% leakage case. This is in accord with Hayhoe et al. (2002) and with the less well established claims of Howarth et al. (2011) who base their analysis on Global Warming Potentials rather than direct modeling of the climate….

The most important result, however, in accord with the above authors, is that, unless leakage rates for new methane can be kept below 2%, substituting gas for coal is not an effective means for reducing the magnitude of future climate change.

2012 NOAA study surveyed selected sites and estimated that methane leakages were significantly higher than expected:

 … last month, the research team reported new Colorado data that support the earlier work, as well as preliminary results from a field study in the Uinta Basin of Utah suggesting even higher rates of methane leakage — an eye-popping 9% of the total production. That figure is nearly double the cumulative loss rates estimated from industry data — which are already higher in Utah than in Colorado.

“We were expecting to see high methane levels, but I don’t think anybody really comprehended the true magnitude of what we would see,” says Colm Sweeney, who led the aerial component of the study as head of the aircraft programme at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder.

Whether the high leakage rates claimed in Colorado and Utah are typical across the US natural-gas industry remains unclear. The NOAA data represent a “small snapshot” of a much larger picture that the broader scientific community is now assembling, says Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in Boston, Massachusetts.

Here is the Caldeira-Myrvold paper from a few months ago:

The bottom line that emerges from this “life-cycle analysis,” or LCA, said Myhrvold, is that by the time we could switch from coal to gas, there would already be so much more CO2 and methane in the atmosphere that we’d be much deeper in the hole. “It’s like living on a credit card,” he said. “It’s easy to get into a situation where it will take years and years to pay back.”

In fact, he argues, because CO2 stays in the atmosphere for so long once it’s up there, a switch to natural gas would have zero effect on global temperatures by the year 2100. “If you take 40 years to switch over entirely to natural gas,” he said, “you won’t see any substantial decrease in global temperatures for up to 250 years. There’s almost no climate value in doing it.”

A switch to renewables (true renewables, that is, not corn-based ethanol) would also incur a carbon debt: it takes energy to manufacture solar panels and wind turbines too, after all. If we made that switch, according to Myhrvold and Calderia’s calculations, you wouldn’t see a change in temperatures for decades either. But by 2100, the decrease would start to kick in…..

Postscript #3. According to a 2012 IEA report (quoted and summarized here), by 2030:

The specific emissions from a gas-fired power plant will be higher than average global CO2 intensity in electricity generation by 2025, raising questions around the long-term viability of some gas infrastructure investment if climate change objectives are to be met. If near-term infrastructure development does not sufficiently consider technical flexibility, future adaptation to lower-carbon fuels and technologies will be more difficult to achieve.

Postscript #4. Here’s a great discussion by Shakeb Afsah and Kendyl Salcito about the economic and ecological aspects of the natural gas and fracking boom. Lots of data and charts. Great overall reference. It covers the issue in great depth. Basically, the low price of natural gas has caused it to replace coal in electricity generation; at the same time, it also has meant increased use in manufacturing.  So the low cost of natural gas may in fact lead to more carbon pollution. Furthermore, although switching from coal to gas produces some decrease in CO2, it can be done more dramatically and more cheaply by building infrastructure for renewable energy. Furthermore, the uncertainty about industry’s ability to contain methane leaks suggests that the CO2 reductions will still be less than predicted. They summarize:

Our analysis highlights how little the low price of shale gas has achieved in abating carbon pollution from fossil fuels. It also exposes the weaknesses in arguments of those who are keen to brand shale gas as a solution for climate change.

Natural gas deserves credit where it is due. But our findings show that there’s been a significant over-statement regarding shale gas’s contribution to cutting CO2 emissions in the recent years. This is surprising because readily available data point to the contrary.

Natural gas cannot be credited with the reductions in the US CO2 emissions observed in the last half-decade. Most reductions, nearly 90%, were caused by the decline in petroleum use, displacement of coal by mostly non-price factors, and its replacement by wind, hydro and other renewables. Where low price of natural gas saved some CO2 by displacing coal, it was quickly offset by its increased use in other sectors—highlighting the pitfall of justifying the current market for natural gas as a “bridge” or an interim phase of transition towards clean energy.

In comparison, each MWh replacement of coal by renewables eliminated a ton of CO2, adding to more than a 100 million metric tons of CO2 savings. Energy efficiency/conservation efforts as estimated by the falling economy-wide energy intensity also saved significant amount of CO2 between 2006 and 2011 (see Appendix-4). Clearly, these measures independently outperform the CO2 savings from the low-price driven coal-to-gas displacement, showing that authentic climate policies based on regulations and clean energy standards are essential for lasting cuts in CO2 emissions.


Michael Barrett is a San Antonio writer and critic who has been publishing essays  about cinema and TV for more than 20 years. His screenplay for an animation feature is currently in going through image“development heck.” Other projects include writing children’s fiction actually intended for adults   and appearing in a still-unreleased comic video about the life of John Ruskin.  In addition to currently writing articles and reviews for the San Antonio Express-News, Video Watchdog magazine, and the website PopMatters, he keeps busy selling old books on Amazon. I’ve known Mike since college where we collaborated on a literary magazine  and  I ran the film projectors for an international films series  Barrett  headed. Barrett’s forte is  writing longer analytical essays about obscure cinematic genres under the guide of DVD reviews.  In one of his more notable essays, You are Living in the Golden Age of Cinema, Barrett asserts  that he doesn’t believe in the myth of declining quality of cinema (when compared to “golden ages” like the 1970s).  “The new problem is getting … noticed amid all this overwhelming superfluity of access, but I submit that this is a much happier problem than not finding a distributor—of which there are a surprising number during this so-called decline, and an increasing number of festivals and labels and channels hungry for product.” (An brief annotated list of his cinema essays is at the end—Also, every text link included in this interview takes you to the relevant Barrett  essays). The interview took place in February, 2012.

Personal Observations

You once mentioned to me that every film inevitably has a mirror scene, something which I’ve noticed ever since you pointed out. Are there any other secrets or rules of thumbs to cinema which you’d like to share?

Yes, and the mirror scene is often the very first or last scene. I’ve just watched Fassbinder’s German sci-fi TV movie World on a Wire, which we can safely say has a mirror in every scene!

imageI have facetiously complained that all foreign movies have a scene where somebody urinates; this goes all the way back to Bicycle Thief. Maybe it’s not all foreign movies, but more than fifty percent, and now it’s spread to American cinema.

My personal rules of thumb have been to watch anything silent and anything Japanese (so Japanese silents must be the apotheosis!), and I pretty much think anything from Eastern Europe is worth watching, and most items from Iran and Africa. Eastern European movies are very “film school”, while films from “emerging” countries have a directness bordering on audacity, which has nothing to do with lack of sophistication and perhaps something to do with oral traditions.

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In the second week of April, I’ll be attending or participating in three FOUR  FIVE events in Houston: A Liar’s Contest, Houston Indie Book Festival, a Film Premiere, and an Energy/Environmental Conference. Details for attending these events is below.  (Note: the Movie Premiere is Thursday, the conference is Friday and the Liar’s contest/booksale & book fest  is Saturday — even though I listed everything in reverse chronological order). Drop me a line if you think you’ll be at one of these events!

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I made a tongue-in-cheek test to measure your knowledge of a very important subject.  For various reasons related to search engines, I will not include a hyperlink, but the link is here: http://www.imaginaryplanet.net/robertnagleiqtest.html

I realize that the answers will seem impossible to those who don’t know me personally (and even the people who know me well got a lot of things wrong).  Don’t worry; it’s just for laughs.

PS. What inspired this test was the zany trivia game which Ross Geller invented in the “One with the Embryos” episode of Friends (which is one of the funniest episodes I’ve seen). (More).


Jade: Outlaw By Robert Flynn (Book Review)

jade-outlawJade: Outlaw by Robert Flynn (2010), JoSara MeDia, 190 pages. Author’s Website and Blog (with RSS feed)

Ebook: Amazon/BN (now at  99 cents!)

Print Editions: Used copies are available, but with ebooks so cheap, why bother?

Summary: A  Western tale about a 19th century Texas town  that is harsh, spiritual and profound.

Recommended if you like:  Cormac McCarthy (but with more plain-spoken  language), Faulkner,  Euripides,  Graham Greene

I don’t normally read Westerns, but I’m a fan of this dark and brooding novel. It takes place in a Texas town beset by all kinds of disruptive forces. Civilized living in this late 19th century Texas town  is still tenuous. Towns are small, individuals are vulnerable to attack and robbery and there’s a lot friction between ethnic groups.  The white man is outraged at how Indians attack settlers and steal their belongings. Indians are outraged by the heavy-handed way that the white man encroaches on their territory and retaliates for crimes committed by Indians from other tribes. Caught in the middle are farming families, Mexicans, merchants, drifters, religious people and people with multiple loyalties.

It’s a rough life that claims many casualties. This novel depicts many of these inhabitants, starting with a tough cowboy haunted by the memory of an Indian raid where he shoots his wife to prevent the Indians from  getting to her first.  He consoles himself that it had to be done — and other white woman agree –but after talking to  Crow Poison,  a white woman who used to be married to an Indian, he has to face the real possibility that the Indians wouldn’t have killed and molested his wife’s body after all. How would he ever know? Was it possible that his murderous deed — though committed with the purest of motives — was ultimately a senseless act of destruction?

Jade finds steady work as an escort for cattle, guarding property and chasing after rustlers. He does it exceedingly well (and the author does a great job of capturing the mundane details of being a cowboy: the food, the daily aggravations, the techniques for defending oneself). Jade has already killed several Indians who have committed crimes. He rationalizes his behavior by saying he’s pursuing justice; in a way, he’s avenging the violence which the Indians forced him to do against the woman he loved. At the same time, Jade feels queasy about having so much violence in his life. What he feels is not so much guilt as  regret that these violent deeds have become for him a necessity of living in Texas.

His foil is a white woman named Crow Poison who used to be married to an Indian; tragically, her son and husband were killed during an Indian raid. Jade and Crow Poison are two people with anger in their hearts; they are immediately attracted to one another, and yet they also condemn one another’s values. Jade finds appalling that Crow Poison might have had normal relations with a man whose laws and moral code was so primitive. Crow Poison finds appalling that Jade could dispense with human life so nonchalantly just to make a living. With horror she realizes that a man like Jade — and maybe even Jade himself — could have been the one who killed her husband and son.

That is the central action of the book. How do both lovers make their peace with the other’s past? Both are loners and strangers in this small community; in a way these two are meant to be together — both are aggrieved enough to challenge the other’s cynical world view.

I wouldn’t call this a religious or even a spiritual novel, but the novel  raises questions about what role religion can play (if any) in a society  lacking  order and a settled structure of governance. A preacher and his family live among the people to offer guidance and comfort and an upright example. But most of the transients and townspeople scoff at the preacher’s efforts. The preacher has dreams of mending relations between Indians and Americans, but he practically inhabits a war zone. Wouldn’t it be better for the intrepid preacher  to wait for peaceful society to develop before trying to spread the Christian word? For someone to intervene (either morally or physically) on behalf of the downtrodden  is almost an invitation to self-destruction or martyrdom. The preacher preaches forgiveness and respect and charity, but in the open land, such currencies have no real value.

Weapons have value, and so do whores. So do ethnic kinship and face-to-face meetings and of course money. The general from the ranch house seems to have the most money, but strongmen/teamsters like Jade have the raw power. Still,  people like Jade are not happy; they cannot even relax. Even as a cautious strongman, Jade doesn’t really feel safe; he must be suspicious of everybody.

Who is Jade really? And who does he want to become?

This remarkable novel provides a compelling panorama of Texas settlers in the late 19th century. I can’t speak of its historical accuracy, but the book is overflowing with details and slang (the slang is not too intrusive, and there is  a helpful glossary at the end). My main complaint is more formal than thematic. The book throws out so many minor characters and backstory  that I got lost several times (even when skimming through the novel for a second time to write this review). The reader’s first encounter with a character is through dialogue;  gradually it becomes possible to piece together the character’s personality during the novel — but it takes a while. (Flynn did something similar in the somewhat  more light-hearted  Wanderer Springs).

The advantage of immersing a reader in such a large ensemble is that encounters seem less directed and  more random; we are never quite sure which members in this town community are going to play an important role later.  The first half of the book is about Jade and Crow Poison’s    turbulent love story, but  by the book’s end, an improbable and tragic series of events thrusts several incidental characters into the limelight (I’m being purposely vague here). These events are jarring and heart-rending; they bring insight and require major choices.  There is a lesson to be learned here: every person is important before the eyes of God and God-loving people, no matter how easy to overlook — whether in the novel or real life.

As I mentioned, my unfamiliarity with characters caused confusion and slowed my reading down (although it was no longer an issue by the last third). The style is sparse, and the language stays simple. But when the narrator is permitted to enter the minds of characters, it reveals  complex sentiments and fears. None of the sentences seem remarkable by itself until you stumble upon one which penetrates to the heart of the matter — not in judgment, but understanding. Here’s a scene where Crow Poison compares Jade to her deceased Indian husband Skull Cap:

Why had he /Jade/ come back? Crow Poison pondered. She no longer believed that he had come to the settlement to kill her,  but what did he want with her? He had sat easy at her table and he walked like Skull Cap, as though walking was for squaws. Warriors were above all living things on the earth. Even the mighty eagle could be put under their foot with an arrow or a rifle. The horse was their glory, the proof of their manhood, their first and greatest coup. The horse was the weapon that made them deadly and the shield that made them invulnerable to lesser foes.

They seemed much the same, Jade and her husband, but separated by rivers of tears, mountains of dead, cliffs of hatred so sheer and deep no one could have imagined the bottom.

She had clung to Skull Cap knowing that she was not likely to have him for long. Horses, buffalo, braves, soldiers — all were proud, all were vain, all were doomed. The horses would survive the longest, beyond their usefulness because of their beauty, their grace. Because they could make a man bigger than he had ever been. Like the locomotive she had seen once. More powerful than a man, yet controlled by a man.

Crow Poison wondered if white men would someday turn against the machine the way they had the buffalo despite all the gifts the buffalo had given man. The buffalo had made survival possible. Yet white man had killed them as happily, as wantonly as she had killed scorpions, centipedes, the snakes that carried death in their mouths..

This passage captures both the romanticized way that men in 19th century treated women and horses, and Crow Poison’s fatalistic attitude that they never will change. At the same time, Crow Poison does not really resist Jade’s romantic advances… if only because the two of them share a kinship based on tragedy. And the two of them are able to help the other to grow; neither are able to preach forgiveness, but at least each comes to realize that the other person is not the real enemy here.

Why should people be reading this kind of novel today? Surely society today is nowhere as dangerous as Jade’s world. The novel asks important questions. How do you enforce a moral code? How can people learn to suppress the thirst for vengeance when pursuing justice? What  kinds of actions can we forgive in a loved one? How do peacemakers bridge the barriers between groups of people who deny the other’s humanity?

The end hints at a sequel, and indeed, Flynn wrote one called Jade: The Law. Although Jade: Outlaw  stands well enough  on its own, I like knowing that this novel was  only the first leg of  a longer  journey.  I’m hoping that the second novel will offer less violence and more time to  focus on the ordinary (and less stressful) part of people’s lives.    Jade:  Outlaw  has a few  lighter moments, but for the most part it depicts humans in a precarious state who are beset  by anxiety and sadness.   Great writing, yes, but when (and how) will the  inhabitants find peace and contentment?

Or will they?

See Also:  My blogpost about Robert Flynn’s web essays (with lots of links).

This disclaimer about reviewing books.

(View my other book reviews).

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Regular readers already know by now that I run Personville Press and am a big fan of the fiction of Jack Matthews.  (You may already have noticed the sidebar ads for his ebooks). I just wanted to mention that Personville recently published his 1967 classic Hanger Stout Awake as an ebook.

If you buy directly from the website, you can use this discount coupon code “HANGER1”  (that’s the number one at the end) so that you pay only 99 cents (instead of the regular price of $2.99).  This is valid until April 1.

I’m no fan of Amazon Kindle, but I wanted to mention two interesting things.

First, Amazon announced last year  that the Kindle 3 generation of devices would support the new ebook format KF8. This is a big deal because it lets publishers use more advanced formatting options. It is also a painful transition because many of the books designed for the older .mobi format just will never get updated to take advantage of the new functionality. I find it strange that Amazon hasn’t done the update to make Kindle 3 read KF8 (it’s been almost 6 months now!) At the same time, Kindle owners must find it good knowing that Kindle 3 will finally be able to use the css features which all the other ebook devices could do out of the box.

Second,  it was interesting to learn that  if Kindle owners used Wifi, they can email ebooks to themselves without paying a fee (but only if they are using wifi).  This is incredibly useful.  Could  publishers take advantage of this? Maybe a publisher  could email to the reader’s Kindle a book purchase as a way to deliver the ebook (rather than having to go through the Kindle store). That could be useful for subscriptions as well.   Perhaps instead of providing an ebook download link, the publisher can just ask for the customer’s free kindle account and email it directly to the Kindle itself.

Finally, a rant of sorts.

I am appalled at how difficult it can be to download titles from Project Gutenberg from ebook devices. I realize that Amazon and BN have a vested interest in ensuring that readers stay at their respective stores, but do the online bookstores really make that much money from reselling public domain titles?  If anything, they should be touting the fact it is so easy to download public domain titles. I first bought an ebook reader in 2004 – fun fact, I really didn’t start buying ebooks until 2010. For 5 years I was happy enough downloading creative commons and public domain titles.  But now out of the ebook titles I download, I would say about 60% are purchased. (This is partly in response to supply and my need for immediate gratification.

NAGLE’S IRON LAW OF EBOOK DEVICES: If an ebook device for sale in 2012 cannot access, download and open a Project Gutenberg title quickly and effortlessly via the device’s builtin wireless connection, then by definition is is not an acceptable ebook device.

It is a substandard — and even a useless — contraption.

This is not an arduous task. That merely means 1)making a easy-to-find bookmark to the PG catalog page or mobile catalog page and 2)testing it to make sure it actually works.

As much as I like Calibre, it can be  a pain to launch and use (Let’s see; where did I leave that USB cable?)

Finally, here’s a brilliant blog by a book marketer  named Kent Weber about how to use online tools to sell your ebook. Goodbookmarketing has a lot of original insights about consumer psychology and expectations. The only thing I’d quibble with him is about buying single domains for each book. Weber argues that you get better SEO ummph when you do that, but I would argue that you are selling the author brand – not the book brand. One of Weber’s most important messages is that you need to make sure search results for your book appears on top of the amazon.com page for it.  Typically, when people review or link to a book, they link to the Amazon.com page, and you want to change that if you can.

(For me, I am trying to encourage people to buy ebooks directly from the author site instead of on Amazon. Amazon/BN basically give 65-70% royalty, while buying direct from the author earns the author about 90% royalty. When you’re talking a $2.99 price, the price difference is considerable.  The author earns 80 cents more per ebook).

Another reason to get the reader to the author’s site is so you can offer bundles and discounts of products. Basically Amazon.com locks you to a price floor of 2.99. If you go lower, your  royalties go from  70%  to 35%. But really, $1.5o or $2 or $2.50 are also sweet spots; If the publisher can offer coupon codes (like I’m doing) or a way to buy two products together at a discount, you can offer better prices than Amazon without violating its terms.

Related: a great compendium of traditional & nontraditional book marketing tips by Carolyn Howard-Johnson.  Also, thecreativepenn   has a lot of good marketing tips I haven’t seen anywhere else.


Breakfast: An Autobiography

Note: I have no idea whether other people might find this essay interesting. Writers tend to find everything interesting, and everyone tends to find  himself  interesting (much to the dismay and/or boredom of others). But I had fun writing it because it opened up a lot of overlooked memories (both olfactory and non-olfactory).

Breakfast: An Autobiography

I am typing this on the bus at 7:30 AM — thinking about breakfast. It’s one of those  banal and obvious topics which few people get around to writing about.1 Meals are specific to a time and place; when we read a book or journal, we assume that the normal daily routines of the people we read about are similar to  our own:  dressing, sleeping, going to the bathroom, eating, washing up, going to work, etc.  But that is a mistake.  Whenever I travel or visit someone’s house  (even if it is only to my sister’s house 200 miles away), I am struck by the differences.  That is why I think it’s valuable to describe my own daily breakfast routines.  They  aren’t  terribly original or interesting –  just different. But the exercise reminds us about how different each of our lives are – down to the smallest detail.  We share a common reality, but not a common way of  experiencing the daily rhythms of life.  Even for breakfast.

Growing Up – Student Years

While growing up, I had almost no memory about eating breakfast. Maybe I ate cereal at my mother’s insistence, but generally I did without it. The cereals I chose were sickeningly sweet. Either I chose Life cereal or Frosted Mini-Wheatsfrostedminiwheats_cereallater I switched to Spoon-Sized Shredded Wheat, but this cereal literally had no taste, and I learned only later that the processed high-carbohydrate cereals all have the same number of calories anyway — so I might as well have sugared it up.  Later I learned that the alleged nutrients  on the cereal label came from additives and fortified milk. The cereal itself was just a bunch of sugary crap.

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AlYankovicByKristineSlipsonLately I have become enamored – no obsessed — with the parody music of Weird Al Yankovic. I’ll say more in a future post, but I came across the archives of his fan club newsletters from the 1990s. I wanted to jot down some of my favorite parts.   The first section consists of the tongue-in-cheek answers, while the second section consists of more serious and interesting answers. People think of him as just writing song parodies using the same melodies as the original singer, but in fact, Yankovic writes a LOT of original songs. Some are labeled as “stylistic parodies” because they are original songs in the style of of well-known singers. That doesn’t detract from Yankovic’s talent – although Yankovic’s ability to mimic other singers is downright scary!  If you don’t believe me that his original songs are first-class, check out  Generic Blues, Biggest Ball of Twine in MinnesotaThat’s Your Horoscope for Today, Albuquerque . Also, for lyrical inventiveness, check out the  merciless Couch Potato parody of an Eminem song.  It’s amazing to think that the original Eminem song won an Oscar, while Weird Al’s version has even more caustic lyrics than Eminem’s original ones. Here’s a list of his songs  and even a list of songs falsely attributed to  Weird Al .

Also, quite apart from Weird Al Yankovic’s songs, he has worked on some hilarious MTV skits/shows. Among them are his mock interview with Eminem. Here is a hilarious running commentary on a bad 1980s video.

Anyway, here begin the excerpts from the Weird Al Fan Club Newsletters.

Not–so-Serious Questions

Is there anything you did naughty as a boy that you never got caught for and still no one knows about it that you could confess to your forgiving fans right now? (Fearless Leader’s comment: And that you wouldn’t mind your mother knowing about?!?!?!?)

No. Absolutely nothing. I was perfect in every way. With the exception of that one tiny train-derailing incident.

Of all your albums, which is your favorite? (Bob Rodgers)

I seem to have a special place in my heart for the albums that sell the most copies.

What do you think of the current MTV as opposed to the MTV of the ’80s?

You know, the weirdest thing happened to me the other day. I happened to turn on MTV, and they were playing a music video!

A lot of successful bands meet and evolve in college. Why do you think college is good for the creative musical process?

I’m sure that my songwriting ability would suffer immensely if it hadn’t been for those three years of calculus that I took in college.

What birth control devices do you condone?

I’ve always figured that my personality was an effective birth-control device.

How often do you bowl? (Hawaiian Ryan Swoverland)

At least once every five years, whether I need to or not.

If the 3 Tenors did another concert and let you pick the songs for the medley (okay, so it’s a really hypothetical question…) what would you make them sing? (#’s 1 & 2 – Unruly Julie Jiles)

A medley of “Kung Fu Fighting,” “The Night Chicago Died” and “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero.”

Can you give any information on your new album?

Yes. (Unfortunately, I can only answer one question about the new album, and I’m afraid that was it.)

Will the Backstreet boys ever be on your show? because that’s my favorite band and tv show!!

Seeing as how the show was cancelled in January, that might be a bit of a problem. Okay, here’s what you do? get a tape of the Weird Al Show and then record a video of the Backstreet Boys in the middle of it. Then just watch it and pretend

Can you name all the Spice Girls?

Sure. I hereby name them all Bob.

What is your new years resolution?

600 dpi.

I am very interested in becoming a vegan (a vegetarian at least). Can you give me any advice?

Don’t eat meat.

fred of chgo il asks: In “UHF” in the beginning, when one of the guys pulls out the gun to shoot you, he uses his left hand, but when it’s on the ground, it’s the right hand, can you tell me why that is?

I think we realized the continuity error after we had already shot the footage with the actor – the disembodied arm that the prop guys had supplied didn’t match the arm that our actor was using for the whip. At the time, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do about it. We just rationalized, “Who’s gonna even care about this 10 years from now? Besides Fred, of course.”

What is the craziest thing that you and the band have done at/to a hotel while y’all were on tour?

We cleaned our rooms before the maid got there.

Can you name any of the songs on your new album?

Yes, I can name all of them.

Is there a specific reason why you tilt your head in photos?

The left side of my brain is much heavier than my right side.

What was your worst subject in middle school?

Physical Education, no doubt. Just out of curiosity, did anybody in history ever NOT have a sadistic Junior High School P.E. coach?

Were the people in your Disney special your real parents?

That’s what they tell me.

CMonkey2000 of Spatula City, Liechtenstein asks: Seriously, how do you rationalize being a vegan and playing a gig at the Great American Rib Cook-Off?

The same way I can rationalize playing at a college even though I’m not a student anymore.

Ed of Winter Garden, Florida asks: Hey Al!  Love your work, but aren’t you slipping a bit?  “Don’t Download This Song?”  I mean, the whole downloading music from the Internet controversy is like 5 years old, man!

Yeah, you’re absolutely right.  It’s a completely dead issue – people stopped illegally downloading songs off the Internet years ago, and the RIAA is no longer taking legal action against P2P sites or criminalizing people who share files.  What was I thinking?  Thanks for setting me straight.  By the way, don’t forget to e-mail Neil Young and ask him why he’s still writing songs about Iraq on his new album.  I mean, come on… that war is so 2003!

Hannanh of St. Louis, MO asks: Why do you write dirty songs? Since I’ve heard a few (like “Bill Clinton Bimbo Number 5”) myself and a few of the kids at my school (like 183) are boycotting you and spreading the word fast. You disgust me!

As I’ve stated very clearly in the FAQ, there are a lot of crude and vulgar parodies floating around the peer-to-peer sites that have my name attached to them. They are NOT by me. All of my material is really pretty family friendly. Of course, you would KNOW this if you actually BOUGHT my CDs instead of trying to ILLEGALLY DOWNLOAD them off the Internet like the amoral-yet-self-righteous HOOLIGAN you obviously are! YOU disgust ME!! Ah, the delicious irony of it all…

Serious Questions

Matthew Walker of Highland, CA asks: How come your parodies are often played faster than the original songs?

I generally like to make my parodies a couple beats per minute faster than the original song, just for a little energy boost. Also, I find that the comedy usually plays better if the tempo is a little quicker.

Sizzling Volleyball of Budd Lake, NJ asks: Hey Al, have kind of a complicated/tedious question for you: Over the years, I’ve wondered how your homages or songs “in the style of” come into being. Many are homages to “demented” bands (B-52s, Talking Heads, Devo, Oingo Boingo, TMBG, Zappa, etc.), but others are less so. Also, there are many that seem to be affiliated to no one particular band, but are genre parodies: unplugged, ska, hair band, etc. Are these bands that you listen to, and so are a sort of tribute? Or are they something else?

As you’ve obviously noticed, I have done quite a few style parodies over the years — that’s what I call songs that are original (as in, not direct parodies) and yet they are done in the style of another artist, group or genre of music. It’s an interesting exercise for me to try to get into the heads of these artists — or at least attempt to crudely forge their musical signatures. In fact, I enjoy doing these kinds of songs so much, I hardly ever do an “original” original any more. (I guess “Hardware Store” could be considered a true original — but truth be told, that was actually a screwed-up style parody. I started out trying to write in the style of a particular group, but I got it so wrong that I just gave up and did it my own way instead.) The artists that I’ve style-parodied range from the extremely popular (Bob Dylan, Nine Inch Nails, James Taylor, etc.) to the semi-obscure (Tonio K, The Rugburns, Hilly Michaels, etc.) — but they’re all favorites of mine, and my homages to them are always done with great affection and attention to detail. In the past, I never put the artists that I style-parodied in the Special Thanks section on my album, mostly because I wanted to see if fans could figure out what I was doing (without being given any obvious hints). But I’ve come to realize that’s a little unfair to those artists — to whom I certainly owe a huge debt of gratitude– so I plan to acknowledge all my musical influences in the CD liner notes in the future.

Tim Sloane of Ijamsville, MD asks: Al, which of these purchasing methods should I use in order to make sure the most profit gets to you: Buying one of your albums on CD, or buying one of your albums on iTunes?

I am extremely grateful for your support, no matter which format you choose to legally obtain my music in, so you should do whatever makes the most sense for you personally. But since you ASKED — I actually do get significantly more money from CD sales, as opposed to downloads. This is the one thing about my renegotiated record contract that never made much sense to me. It costs the label NOTHING for somebody to download an album (no manufacturing costs, shipping, or really any overhead of any kind) and yet the artist (me) winds up making less from it. Go figure.

Gary Derrick of Mustang, Oklahoma asks: I was recently watching Late Night with Conan O’Brien and the tambourine player with that night’s musical guest (whom I can’t really remember at the moment) looked surprisingly like you… any idea who your evil twin is?

Well, first of all, it was Jay Leno, not Conan O’Brien — and FYI, the musical guest was Ben Folds — and the guy who looked surprisingly like me was … me. But you’re absolutely right, it WAS a tambourine. The story is, Ben and I have been friends for a while (I directed one of his music videos and we’ve performed on each other’s albums). I went to see Ben when he was in concert here in Los Angeles, and afterwards we were hanging out in his dressing room. At one point he said to me, “Hey, I’m doing the Tonight Show tomorrow — you should come on the show with me and just play tambourine!”  And we both laughed at what a ridiculous idea that was. Then the next morning, he called me up and said, “I just woke up from this weird fever dream, and I think it was some kind of a sign — you HAVE to play tambourine on the show.” I was honored to accept his offer, of course, so I hopped in the car and headed down to the NBC studios, practicing the tambourine as I drove. I was surprised when I got to the stage — I thought they were going to have me tucked away somewhere behind the string section, but they had me standing right next to Ben’s piano. It was kind of surreal — my first appearance on the Tonight Show in 20 years, and there I was being a professional tambourine player! Well, needless to say, I had a blast, and I think the performance came off very well. And I’ll be happy to slap the tambourine again for Ben any time he wants.


Jake L. of Readington, NJ asks: When you recorded your lines for The Simpsons, were there any that got cut out of the episode?

Thankfully, my part wasn’t cut at all, which was lucky for me because I know a lot of really, really funny lines from that episode wound up on the cutting room floor. My band recorded the instrumental track for the ”Jack and Diane”  parody at Mad Dog Studios in Burbank, but I got to go to the 20th Century Fox lot to sing the song and read my lines in a studio sitting next to Dan (Homer Simpson) Castellaneta himself, which was a huge thrill for me. Originally I was only intended to be in the body of the show, but the recording session went so well, the writers thought it would be a great idea for me to sing an extended version of the parody over the closing credits (and of course, I did too)! So they came up with some additional lyrics and I went back to the Fox lot several weeks later to record that as well. Then, shortly before the show aired, I had to go back one more time to re-record the end of the song? — I think the original ending went something like, “Oh yeah, we got time to fill  — Why don’t you go pee before King Of The Hill? “ The problem was, by the time the episode was scheduled to air, The Simpsons was being followed by Oliver Beane, not King Of The Hill  —  so they had me change it to the more generic “Oh yeah, Weird Al had fun on this show “  Even if it was just a brief cameo, being on The Simpsons was definitely a high point in my life  —  big thanks to all the writers, producers and artists who helped make it happen!


Carbon Neutral in Houston (Year 2)

This report is my second year of carbon neutrality. (A description of my first year is here).

This year saw some life changes which affected my carbon footprint.

  • First,  I moved to a new place where among other things, I had great access to public transportation. I live near a supermarket and even more places where I can bike to.
  • Second,   unlike the previous year (where I was mostly working from home), this year I mainly worked for 40 hours in an office.  I take a bus every day to and from work.  Which is delightful.  So during summer months I turn off the air conditioning during the day and even unplug my TV and computer.
  • Third, my car died for good in June. This was not entirely unexpected, but I was preparing for a car-less existence for several years.
  • 2011 was the year of the incredible heat wave and drought.  It got really rough – especially for someone who tries to use the air conditioning judiciously.
  • I basically bought few electronic devices (except for a microwave).
  • I have sort of lightened up on the beef. I will eat it occasionally – not regularly, but I don’t worry about it as much.
  • I didn’t take any long trips really. I went to the coast by bus in July and rented a car to travel to San Antonio and Austin.  I sometimes share rides with family members, and I don’t count them in my overall footprint – although maybe I should

References for Calculating Carbon Footprint

Carbon Footprint Calculator.

EPA’s Energy and Reference.

Terrapass Methodology for Calculating Carbon Footprint


1500 miles on my defunct Toyota Corolla and 450 miles on the rental car (Total: 1950 miles)

Last year I used 5968 watts of energy. Here’s the breakdown for 2011: (in reverse order, sorry)

December 427 Kwh
November: 327 KWh
October 383 Kwh
September 510 Kwh
August  713 KwH
July 576 KwH
June 672 Kwh
May  544 KwH
April 325
Mar 368
Feb 366
Jan 448

Total energy consumption for 2011  is  5659 watts – a 5% drop. Of course, I’m using a green energy plan (Tera Energy at 9.4 cents a watt for a 12 month contract), so this doesn’t count towards my footprint.

On the other hand, my apartment has a water heater powered by natural gas, so I ought to be paying for that.  A Dept of Energy estimate quoted here says that 14% of total energy costs come from heating water. Because I don’t use hot water when I wash clothes and because I’m guessing my apartment uses a bigger and more efficient hot water heater, I’m going to estimate my annual usage to be 10%.. which is 570 watts or .1 metric ton of CO2.


I commute to work. Distance between work and home is about 7 miles.  Both ways is 14 miles per day. Assume that I have worked May through December (8 months,  20 days per year if I include vacation time and holidays). That means 160 days for 2011.

160 days x 14 miles per day = 2240 miles by mass transit in 2011.  According to this mass transit calculator, that translates to .48 metric tons of CO2. Also, I took one long distance bus trip for 250 miles.  I’m guessing that this was .04 metric tons of CO2.

In addition, I drove my car for about 1500 miles. (My car broke down in June, so I got rid of it after then).  I  owned a 1998 Toyota Corolla which got 30 mpg. That’s about 1079 pounds of CO2 for 2012. I took a summer trip of about 550 miles.  Let’s assume that the summer trip was 500 pounds of CO2.

Totals: For car travel, 1600 pounds of CO2 converts to .73 metric ton of CO2 .For mass transit, .52 metric tons of CO2. For home electricity, totals are 0. For my natural gas usage, that is 0.1 metric tons of CO2.

Grand total of my 2011 carbon footprint: 1.35 metric tons of CO2. (2975 pounds).

Conversions: 1 short ton = 0.90718474 metric tons, 1 short ton = 2000 pounds, 1 metric ton = 2,204 pounds.


I’m going to purchase offsets for 3000 pounds of CO2. According to Terapass, the price for 3000 pounds of CO2 offsets is $17.85

Additional Costs I haven’t figured in

I’ll be honest. I don’t want to pretend that I have taken into account all the factors which contribute to my carbon footprint. I’ve just measured all that is measurable. Here are some other impacts:

  1. Other people’s electricity. I wash my clothes in a community washer every week.
  2. Big ticket items (imported). I bought an office chair and a microwave and maybe some computer parts. I really have no way to account for that.
  3. Eating at restaurants. I eat prepared foods probably more than average. Although I generally eat healthy, I have not taken into account this cost or the electricity costs of the dining area itself.
  4. My dog. My dog is only 25 pounds, but I buy stuff for him. They are probably animal byproducts in the dogfood I buy, so it’s hard to account for that.

Last year I explained my thoughts and insights into why I calculated the way I did.


The cool photo gallery I created

Here’s a large  photo gallery I created of the cars of the novels by Jack Matthews. Lots of photos, a slow-loading page, but generally enjoyable (I wrote a short introductory essay as well).


Problems with RSS Feed

I don’t know what is going on, but Google Reader has been having problems parsing my RSS feed.

I recently posted 2 articles:

but neither shows up on my Google Reader  feed. I think it has something to do with the fact that my default URLs embeds the date in the URL, and lately I’ve had to manually change the date (because the posts were started a few months ago and the date needed to be updated).

On another strange note, the above article “Advice to Literary Critics” went live before I actually published it. That may be related to some defect in Windows Live Writer.

Anyway, I’m aware of this problem – I’m not sure what the solution is, but I will be doing some investigation and report back when I figure out a solution.


Damaged by my education

Lynn Barber sums up the life lessons she gained from her ill-fated affair:

What did I get from Simon? An education – the thing my parents always wanted me to have. I learned a lot in my two years with Simon. I learned about expensive restaurants and luxury hotels and foreign travel, I learned about antiques and Bergman films and classical music. All this was useful when I went to Oxford – I could read a menu, I could recognise a fingerbowl, I could follow an opera, I was not a complete hick. But actually there was a much bigger bonus than that. My experience with Simon entirely cured my craving for sophistication. By the time I got to Oxford, I wanted nothing more than to meet kind, decent, straightforward boys my own age, no matter if they were gauche or virgins. I would marry one eventually and stay married all my life and for that, I suppose, I have Simon to thank.

But there were other lessons Simon taught me that I regret learning. I learned not to trust people; I learned not to believe what they say but to watch what they do; I learned to suspect that anyone and everyone is capable of "living a lie". I came to believe that other people – even when you think you know them well – are ultimately unknowable. Learning all this was a good basis for my subsequent career as an interviewer, but not, I think, for life. It made me too wary, too cautious, too ungiving. I was damaged by my education.

carey_mulligan_and_peter_sarsgaard_an_education_movie_imageBy the way, these memoirs served as the material for the excellent British film, The Education. If you plan to watch the film,  you should watch the film first and read the essay later. If reading the essay makes you want to watch the film, too bad. (Carey Mulligan did an excellent job; she’s a marvelous actress; I saw her in the amazing Dr. Who episode Blink).

The essay explains one thing about the film which struck me as implausible: why would a man propose to a young girl when he was already married? I think every person’s romantic history must seem bizarre and implausible to random strangers  and a source of hilarity to people decades later.  Was it a joke? Was he really intending to divorce his wife? Was he just being sadistic? In the movie you  can’t just chalk it up to the character being a villain.

In the movie there is a horrifying discovery scene near the end which was a masterpiece of understatement.  Also, there were several set pieces in Paris, nightclubs, racetracks. (The film enjoys these little side adventures more than it needs to; alas, such is the nature of the cinematic medium).   Looking at Wikipedia, I see that the movie was inspired by an essay Barber wrote for Granta which appeared in her book An Education. Barber never intended to make it into a movie, but screenplay writer Nick Hornsby discovered the story and wrote a dazzling screenplay for it.  The result was excellent, but that avoids the obvious question: what medium would have the best one for telling this story?

The film has a sensuality and a single-minded focus on the affair (and incidental details arise from this primary plot). But Barber admits in the prose piece that she didn’t feel any great enthusiasm about the affair – and maybe having more enthusiasm for  the life lesson learned.  But the cinema genre focuses too much on the visual and sensual (even though the film ostensibly tries to warn against such seductions). It is fun to watch – to see the adults squirm, to see Miss Naiveté learn her lesson. But a prose version could convey some of the episodes with more detail and reflection. When we see the film, we are led to believe that the affair was catastrophic for her, but in the book it is just one episode on the road to knowledge. A prose version can convey longer conversations, intellectual banter, jokes and the emotions flowing her before, during and after the affair. It can also convey the interweaving of events. This woman was not just being romanced by an older man; she was reading Camus and studying her Latin and presumably gossiping with her female friends.

The act of writing is a conceit; very few would take the time to document their experiences. The decision to write about something means you are editing the narrative, selecting details which read well, focusing on narrative flow, throwing in a few tragicomic moments. When a person keeps a diary, it is possible to estimate the relative importance of an event by space devoted to it. But merely because you waste a lot of words on a topic doesn’t mean it’s that important. For example, I spend an awful lot of time blogging about climate change, Bush and yes –even blogging. But none of this is important (or it is not particularly important to me).  A reader would learn next to nothing about me by my blogging about climate change (except that I am tenacious, progressive and unafraid of arguments). Books are important to me….vitally important; yet I spend very little on my blog talking about books or authors or even literature. This may have to do with the casual nature of blogging; I don’t have casual remarks to make about literature; my remarks on literature  have to be profound or remarkable or witty or else I will not bother to speak about them here.

A blog is not a confessional; if I killed somebody or had my heart broken or felt unbelievable sorrow or joy about something, I would never mention it here. (I did mention the recent death of my dad, but that is a different story). The more words you spill on a web page, the more you avoid saying.  I do not consider myself an academic type, but the few times  that I write a long critical or research essay, I feel as though I have invested my heart and soul in getting it perfect. If I wrote an essay or memoir like Barber’s The Education, it would not and could not be chatty or casual.  On the other hand, I am not always serious; I love a good joke, a good TV show, a good meal. But would I blog about this?

Is it better to write about important feelings and events or unimportant ones? I remember a photograph from high school of an old high school girlfriend Susan E. She was a lovely girl  and lots of fun. The photograph I found recently was taken at Galveston beach. We are with her friends who are wearing bathing suits. Susan is laughing with her friends. It is a lovely moment in time – but unimportant to me except for the fact that it became a photograph. But one detail about the photo really stirs up nostalgia – my car! It is a 1979 Toyota Celica, imageand when I saw it again, it triggered lots of random memories – misadventures with friends,  Susan, family. Amazingly, I was walking on a Corpus Christi street and stumbled upon the same Celica model on the street. I don’t think the car was drivable – it was basically a billboard for some small business, but I felt an awe towards this icon for my past (even though I am not really a fan of cars anymore – the CO2 they emit are bringing the earth closer to a state of damnation!)

There are reasons not to like the  literary memoir; it doesn’t really involve the imagination, and it doesn’t really try to escape; all it tries to do is to be faithful to a person’s remembrance and insightful about it. All worthy goals, but structurally unsound: why base an art form on one person’s memory? Isn’t it an exercise in egotism? What if everyone did the same thing? Isn’t it better that most people keep their private thoughts and feelings to themselves? Would I like it if  my mom or sister were drafting memoirs about some family incidents involving me?  I know they would be kind and discreet, but what if I preferred these memories not to reach public ears? What if my high school sweetheart preferred not being a subject of a blogpost (Oops, I think I already did one).

Fiction, if you stop to think about it, is  amazing. You are just making things up – and adding characters and poetry.  The stories I write don’t normally fall too far outside my circle of experience, but I don’t feel the need to limit my writing to things I have direct experience with.  Recently, I have started writing fiction about places I have never been before: Venice, Chicago, Berlin. Obviously, I’d like to do more traveling (well, eco-friendly traveling!), but I rather enjoy trying to fake it. Could I write a story which could fool people into thinking I actually knew what I was talking about?

But actually writing fiction  isn’t something I can do all the time. Most of my writing is about more mundane things, and that is how it should be. If I wrote nothing but essays about literature, then I would be conveying the impression that literature is the only thing in my life. Of course it is important – probably the most important thing. But I don’t spend a lot of time pondering literature; I spend much more time contemplating life’s absurdities, the financial and professional challenges, the random things I think about on the bus,  random thoughts about politics. As it stands, now, my random observations about pop culture are going to Facebook more often than to this blog, but even so, a blog is a good way to capture the random reflections.   Every so often I like browsing through my archives – not so much to see instances of great essay writing or to find typos, but simply to remember what was going through my mind at a certain period of time.

In a Jack Matthews book I edited for publication, Matthews makes the point that instead of writing confessional diaries, authors need  a journal to keep track of artistic fragments which they later can pull into stories. Maybe for some authors, it is a good technique and I do a little bit of that – not much – but most of these are simply handwritten notes on random pieces of paper, keywords,  story outlines with significant details.

A blog fulfills a similar purpose. Not so much for recording story ideas, but for cataloguing articles and random observations about life. As much as I admire bloggers who blog daily or two or three times a day, many of these blogs would be practically unreadable 5 years later. Who cares about the transportation bill or some international scandal or predictions about who will win some election? The blog posts that will seem important 5 years later will be about birthdays, personal milestones, extreme weather, mild annoyances, etc.   A blog is most useful for cataloguing  minutiae of life and juxtaposing it with reflections like this one.

About the film 49 Up, I once wrote that the audience never finds out what is really going on in the interviewee’s life until the next episode filmed 7 years later. Apparently 7 years is a long enough time period for someone to talk about a life event with detachment and lack of shame or self-consciousness. Let me see, 7 years ago I was recovering from a nasty long distance relationship; after a long hiatus from fiction writing, I had finally  started publishing stories  under a pseudonym for a fiction project;  In Spring 2004 or so during a trip to Baltimore, I had conceived the idea for a major collection of stories (which I put aside for a while, but will pick up in the next few years).  I was bored at my job and dreaming about video projects. Yet if you looked at my blog, you would see that most of my posts were about audio recording, Thai emoticons, George W. Bush, referrer spam, lusting after a haircut and python programming.

I guess none of those posts were important aside from the fact that they marked time.

Update: Apparently Barber learned a awful lot about passion at Oxford.


Advice to Literary Critics

Don’t read other critics before you write your review or criticism.


First, the essay becomes more  a reaction if not an embellishment upon what the other critics have said. In college I wrote a great essay about Allen Bloom’s polemic about academia, Closing of the American Mind. While preparing my  review, I read longer reviews in various publications, including a long great one by Martha Nussbaum in New York Review of Books. My final review was impressive and had interesting opinions and insights, but I’ll admit that the ideas weren’t entirely my own.  Guess what —  I can sound really smart paraphrasing and expanding upon the great things Martha Nussbaum said.

Second, when you write reviews, you have to invent ideas and opinions out of thin air. Sure, you will miss a lot, but you will also perceive things  other critics have missed. It is a myth to think that a critic has to notice and analyze everything. Far from it. Sometimes when you wing it, you only notice one or two things. But often that’s  good enough. Any piece of literary criticism is lucky to contain one original thought, so it’s important to stress originality.

Third, it’s remarkable how much your own thoughts are influenced by  another critic’s  judgment. Even if your  conclusions  can be differentiated from that of the earlier critic, you are still following the same wheel-paths of interpretation.  Often you end up swallowing  the implicit assumptions of literature that the first critic has made. Must a work reflect post-consumerist ambivalence? Embrace the new American Frontier or repudiate the Old World? Must a work hint at linguistic uncertainties? Change blindness and confirmation bias  affect not only  the social sciences but also the humanities. It is easy  to miss what is right in front of you because are implicitly following what other critics  have focused upon.   Reading other critics can help you advance more quickly in understanding. But that may not always be a good thing. My day job is technical writing, a field where I essentially play the village idiot and have to ask the dumb questions. Being stupid helps you to notice things which might be ignored by someone possessing advanced knowledge.

There is a down side to winging it; you are  wrong a lot more often. You can misunderstand things or fail to recognize references or parallels or even miss plot points. To be taken seriously as a critic, you have to recognize these things.  Or do you? When you miss references (in a work like Wasteland for example), you are forced to listen to the phrases and admire small portions without grasping the overall unity. Poetry is a different case; you can totally miss things.  No denying it:  understanding the message or meaning can definitely improve enjoyment.  But if you go into a literary work with no previous knowledge of secondary sources, you approach the literary work more blindly, but with more perceptiveness.

Modernism set expectations that great literary works have to be  unfathomable or esoteric.  We are taught that great literature requires patience and perseverance.  Sometimes this  is  true (especially in puzzle genres like poetry). But  the biggest challenge of literature is relevance and accessibility – especially with the great numbers of works coming out every day. To put it another way: a great work can have appeal both as high culture and low culture; the main complicating factor is that commercial interests magnify the visibility of anything with universal appeal  by dumbing it down even more. That is the nature of the beast, I guess.  Merely being accessible doesn’t make something great  (or else Gilligan’s Island would count as something more than it is).

The primary role of critics is not decoding but explaining technique and identifying significance and placing things in cultural context.  I recently reviewed a story collection by Augusto Monterroso. After reviewing it, I read the  terrific introductory essay about Monterroso  by Will H. Corral.  While I don’t think my review was off by much, Corral’s essay  explored lots of themes and literary ideas which my review only alluded to.  Reading it, I realize how much  I could have discussed in my review but did not.  At the same time, I am an American writer reading the book in 2012. Each essay has different aims. My review tries to judge the success of literary technique and  story structure; but then again, I am  a writer, and these formal questions interest me more.  By any standard, Corral’s  essay is better than my review. But the things I notice are still worth thinking about.

For almost  every major artist or work of art,  there are usually  two or three critical responses which tower over the rest; among academics these responses are referenced and rebutted or embraced regardless of what your opinion. These two or three responses become a frame of reference for everybody – but they also become a kind of intellectual sand trap.

To take an author I know well: Franz Kafka. Early criticism related his fiction to Jewish mysticism (Talmud, Martin Buber, Yiddish theatre, etc). Then came the anti-authoritarian existentialists a la Camus. Obviously, these are valid and relevant interpretations, but they are also conventional; compare to my favorite analysis by Elias Canetti in Kafka’s Other Trial who notes the parallels between The Trial and his on again/off again engagement with Felice Bauer. It’s an altogether idiosyncratic reading, but one I think which holds up well. Just yesterday I watched David Lean’s filmed version of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter.  In  the wiki article for the film, I learned about a reading of the film by critic  Francis Gray who  argues that the reason the main primary didn’t consummate their relationship was class consciousness – that lower class and upper class could dally in extramarital romance, but middle class adults could not.  That strikes me as a ludicrous way to view the film  and precisely the sort of claptrap to emerge from British critics in the 1940s and 1950s.  Gray wrote his analysis in the 1980s, but it seems  forced and derivative; I just don’t see class consciousness in the film (as  I might see it in Scorcese’s Age of Innocence or James Cameron’s Titanic).

The problem comes when one kind of analysis becomes popular, and suddenly every critic is doing it or at least acknowledging it in their own analysis.  In the middle of the 20th century, psychoanalytic criticism was popular, and suddenly Kafka criticism was littered with analysis of the sexual imagery. Interesting and occasionally insightful, but the analysis seems more imposed upon the work than complementary to it.  In the academy  scholars advance only if they have mastered and internalized paradigms prevalent at the time.  Unfortunately this makes criticism seem dated decades later.  I often read scholarly essays from past  decades and  am horrified at how offtrack  critic go.  Sometimes a school of analysis reveals a lot – and scholars feel that they need to align themselves with a certain analytic method to succeed. But these kinds of analysis often say more about the theory than the work itself.

Perceptive readers may note I am in fact criticizing two things:   first, people who read other criticism before writing their own analysis and second, people who use a literary theory or framework to analyze a work. Are these two criticisms  the same? I don’t think so, but the effect of both is that the aspiring critic changes the focus from the literary work to the tradition of literary criticism itself. When this happens, the critic loses the ability to respond authentically to the text and can only express appreciation in one way — while missing  things not relevant to a particular form of analysis. Criticism by definition is incomplete and peculiar to the individual. Those are good things;  I don’t want criticism to be comprehensive. Ultimately the bad thing about taking secondary sources too much into account when writing your essay/review  is that criticism becomes less personal and more objective and abstract. Criticism ought to be bold and biased and egotistical; it should not read like an encyclopedia.

Finally,  a personal detail. Over the last years I have gathered notes in preparation for a collection of essays about the fiction of  Jack Matthews. It is a great burden. As enthusiastic as I am about his works, I also lack the necessary detachment to write a fair book. What I see in a work may not be the same as what most people see.  My opinions may seem to these future hypothetical readers to be  poppycock. For future readers and scholars, my critical book may be an obstacle to understanding the fiction of Jack Matthews.  Paradoxically, the logical result of my exhortation  to avoid secondary criticism is that nobody should buy or  read my book of criticism.

Yet another way I  write myself out of existence.



Eventually I’ll get around to digitalizing this great essay about Allen Bloom I wrote. You’ll admire it (and I still have good feelings about it), but keep in mind that better minds than myself shaped its thoughts and organization. I just went along for the ride.

By the way, I don’t consider myself a critic, but just a person who sometimes dabbles in it.  I write essays when I feel that the subject needs to be addressed and a critical void needs to be filled.  (That’s partly why I plan to write a book about Jack Matthews – not because I consider myself a bona fide critic, but simply because I know that if I don’t do it, no one will do it for a very long time).



Complete Works and Other Stories by Augusto Monterroso (1995), UT Press (Austin). Translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman, 150 pages.

Print Editions: Used copies are available for about $10

Book Page at UT Press site , Amazon.com page, Complete Review page , Author Wikipedia page ; Another review.

Summary: A great and hilarious sketchbook with smaller literary forms, but I wish that story subjects were treated more thoroughly.

Recommended if you like:  Borges,  Yourgrau, Calvino,  Kundera

Monterroso’s Complete Works and Other Stories contain two volumes of stories in  a single book. The stories are compressed, satirical and chiefly about bookish subjects. In some stories the style is frenetic and a series of jarring images and exclamations. Many of the stories seem essayistic; the second volume Perpetual Motion contains a series of short themes — some of which are not fictional at all. Most of the narratives are self-conscious; in the penultimate story Brevity the narrator says,

The truth is that the writer of short pieces wants nothing more in this world than to write long texts, interminably long texts in which the imagination does not have to work, in which facts, things, animals and men meet, seek each other out, exist, live together, love, or shed their blood freely without being subjected to the semicolon or the period." (From “Brevity”)

The final story "Errata and Final Notice" points out alleged errors earlier in the book, adding that the book ends on page 152, this "does not mean it could not also begin here in a backward motion as useless and irrational as the one undertaken by the reader to reach this point."

Clever stuff. My favorite story Leopoldo (His labors) describes a man who considers himself a writer and is regarded as one by friends and family, and yet does little of what may be called writing. Instead, he cogitates at great length about writing, goes through several drafts and spends months agonizing about whether a porcupine or dog should win in a fight in one of his stories.   Other story themes include: the vagaries of literary reputation and publishing world, the vanities of the artist  and the art appreciator, The title story Complete Works is about a timid critic who longingly hangs around other more distinguished critics until he discovers a narrow field of literary specialization which suffices to gain him entrance into the club.

Other stories cover general themes with characters to illustrate the points: the tallest man in the world, the wife of a ruler who likes to put on charity events involving poetry, a man who deals in shrunken heads, a jealous man. But most of the chapters are either simple little allegories or one paragraph observations about life and art. The book totals 150 pages, and yet it took a long time  for me to read. Almost all the pieces were delightful: short and elegantly told (and rendered by Edith Grossman). Yet I wonder if nonartists would find these pieces as enjoyable as I did.  One of the more successful pieces, Solemnity and Eccentricity, reads more like an essay than a story;  a group of artists proclaim a war against solemnity, and Monterroso reflects on the futility of such a campaign:

those who were not solemn (I hastened to place myself among those) laughed more than ever, wherever they were, pointing the finger at things and people.Those who thought themselves solemn declared with a forced smile that they were not, or at least were only when there was no need to be.

The rest of the piece reflects on solemnity, false solemnity and ultimately eccentricity, cataloguing historical accounts of eccentrics  over the the centuries.

Monterroso’s previous collection Black Sheep (which I have not read) tells simple fable-like tales about animals, and this book also displays the author’s talent in working within miniature forms.  Complete Works has many elements found in shorter fiction:  the fairy tale realism of Buzatti, the elegant impudence of Baudelaire, the promiscuous surrealism of Yourgrau, the absurdist obscurantism of Kafka and  the otherworldly pedanticism of Borges. At the same time, Monterroso’s pieces have a friendly conversational tone; they are  more down-to-earth,  lush with symbolism but not allegorical, more designed to enthrall with wit than to engage the imagination, more geared to social commentary than suggesting an aesthetic. Most of the pieces seem borderline  ridiculous –  but never implausible.

Microfiction can be hard to read, even for a remarkable  book like this.  As much as I enjoy the book’s  paradoxes and aphorisms, at the end, I found myself longing for longer pieces and a sustained perspective  at characters. This is not an impossible feat.  Kundera organized various essays and mini-episodes into sections  to simulate the effect of a novel’s spaciousness.    In Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald assembled  a series of short  imaginary incidents from the  the  life of a German writer poet  and produced a coherent narrative direction — even though every chapter was 1-3 pages long. I know: Different author, different ambitions, different styles. Monterroso’s extraordinary fiction is what it is, but for me they never rise above being impish sketches.  For the Perpetual Motion collection of stories (in the 2nd half of the book), "flies" are the  unifying motif –  but this association via literary quotes at the top of each story  didn’t help me or even make much sense. Out of all the characters, only one – Leopoldo the writer – stood out in my memory.  I can’t help wondering if such a memorable character could be enhanced with additional chapters.   This brilliant story provided an initial condition without necessarily adding a complication or a potential for change. Let me ask: would Don Quixote be  better if  it were only one chapter?


You’re not supposed to read this!

To my astonishment and dismay, while looking at Google Reader I noticed on my  blog’s RSS feed an essay which I had not yet made live. Wow, how did that happen?

Frankly,  when I’m still working on a draft, things can look awfully ugly. By the time I click PUBLISH, I’ve gotten rid of most of the ugly bits, but a few still slip by.

So if you have already read the offending essay and told yourself – how dull! – please wipe that essay out of your mind and wait patiently. (Soon, I promise!).

The odd thing is, I do a lot of writing and reading and yet no time to blog. But don’t worry; things end up here eventually.


Pondering Kellie Pickler

I’m sure this blog post will reveal my profound ignorance about pop culture. So bear with me.

Start by watching this hilarious video by a dumb-sounding blonde contestant on a TV game show called  “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?”  I had seen it before, but I watched it again with delight.  image

After watching it, I asked myself, who is this blonde girl? Is she famous? Does she have a name?  And was this stupidity just an act or was she truly as ignorant about geography that the show portrayed?

Googling a little, I see she was an American Idol contestant.

She did a great and spunky American Idol audition here. I can’t really judge her musical talent, but she was pretty and had a strong and striking voice. It’s no surprise that she would make it to Hollywood – although it’s also no surprise that she wouldn’t win – these things are popularity contests anyway.

I’m not really a fan of  country music – although I can listen to it in small amounts. I guess my problem is not so much country music as the packaged country music which always sounds jingoistic, overproduced and bland.  The music videos are even worse. At least with rap, you had clever lyrics and visual puns. But given her North Carolina background, it’s no surprise that Pickler would be attracted to that genre.

Youtubing some more, I find this funny video – an interview with Ellen. It’s a  hilarious tale about fire ants on the Ellen DeGeneres show. Truly one of the most hilarious things  I’ve heard. She has this Southern &  unaffected way of talking as well as an ability to say outrageous things and pull it off as any Southern belle might. It’s fun to watch Ellen DeGeneres (a first class comedian of her own) just watch Pickler in amazement.  I checked some of her other Ellen appearances – and they are equally hilarious. I wonder, does she even prepare these talks or does she just wing it? First, there is this piece about getting a traffic ticket in California and another piece about getting stopped again by a cop for speeding and a strange Halloween appearance with crazy costumes and a  scare.  (Some other entertaining pieces on TV shows include an MTV awards  Red Carpet  stint she did for the Tonight Show and another Ellen appearance where she meets her idol Clint Eastwood.

These are great – and these are classic TV moments, and yet I realize that I barely had listened to her sing.  One of her most famous songs, I Wonder, was sung with tears at the CMA awards – a moving performance reminiscent of one of my alltime tear-jerkers, Jennifer Lopez’s  singing of Selena’s I could fall in love with you ). Reading through the notes, I discover that Pickler has a sad family history. The song was about her estrangement from her mother; apparently her father was an abusive criminal who drove her mother to run away and leave Kellie with her grandparents. Kellie’s mother had engaged in some small criminal activity herself, and after her father was put in prison, the mother returned to take custody again. That lasted for two years, after which both Kellie and her grandparents claim the mother was physically and verbally abusive. A court released her to the grandparents once again, resulting in a permanent estrangement between mother and daughter.

Now of course, Pickler is famous and probably rich, and so her biography probably becomes more of an issue than it would be for most people. Her mother (Cynthia Malone)  came forward and gave some interviews. In this news interview, she describes  the turbulent marriage:

She said her mother gave her an ultimatum.

"To have an abortion or leave,” Malone said.

So she left and married Clyde Pickler. She said it didn’t take long before she was being beaten again.

"It started with the alcohol, and then it went into other drugs, and the further along I got the worse it got,” she said. “In my pregnancy I was being hit. I about miscarried several times."

"I went to my baby shower with a busted lip and a black eye,” she said.

Malone claims many people were aware of the abuse but did nothing to stop it. She said when she realized her life was at risk, she had to go.

"When I thought I was going to be killed, I knew it was coming down to it was going to be me or him,” she said.

What was the worst thing that happened – the worst that you’ve felt?" Bryant asked.

“Leaving my baby, leaving my baby — that was the hardest decision I had to make,” Malone said.

(Here are two video clips here and here). On camera the mother seems like a level-headed woman. She seems like a genuine victim with remorse. At the same time, in an uncharacteristically angry TV interview, Kellie Pickler accuses her mother of lying, of doing a good acting job for the camera and warns her mother never to return to her again.  In fact, when Pickler gave a concert in Raleigh, NC, she had police officers at the concert  had photos of the mother to prevent her from making contact. (By the way, great job to the local TV journalists for such a balanced and sensitive portrayal of this human drama). The TV report makes clear that Kellie Pickler’s version of events is a lot more complicated than it first appears. The mother may have made bad decisions and had her problems, but for now it seems drowned out by the Pickler publicity machine. My hope is that they can have a  (private) reconciliation, and that Kellie can see her mother with different eyes later.

It is a great drama with many tragic dimensions. For the daughter, the pain is too real, and yet her fame brought her the power and independence to detach herself from it. She is using her music to work through the pain of growing up while at the same time exploiting it for her show business career.   All artists have a shtick, and I guess there’s dignity in trying to make your music or art about something real. (Country performers have that knack, it seems).

Celebrities have to create a personality brand, and I guess it’s better to turn yourself into a ditzy country belle than a victim of a Southern family trauma. Maybe some individuals prefer hiding their personality and focusing just  on performance or art; actually, that’s pretty easy to do if you’re not a megastar. But even some megastars like  Sheryl Crow, for example, doesn’t seem to have any colorful persona during her TV concerts or talk show appearances; she is there just to sing.  Maybe Crow  makes a few asides in between songs, but she’s not really  trying to weave a biographical narrative.  She doesn’t try to be funny; she just doesn’t need to. Sheryl Crow belongs to my personal pantheon of great singers, and her music videos have always been bold and expressive (though I suspect this is more a result of Crow’s publicity team than artistic muse).

But Pickler seems to have an insane need to be liked. She is  needy but funny. Her upbringing might account for it;  the need to be funny can mask all kinds of insecurities. Talk to any comedian on tour, and you’ll find someone with a drinking problem, a history of failed relationships and a caustic attitude towards life. Ok, I am generalizing, but this is true more often that we’d care to admit; what kind of person would try to make a living out of being funny – no matter how hard?  I once had a teacher who was the funniest and most clever person I’d ever met.  Her wit was on a par with Oscar Wilde. I got  to know her rather well; she had a very prominent and visible role in her community, but later I began to feel that her public eloquence was  a ruse to misdirect her audience from her actual personality. I actually had no idea what this woman was like inside. I had no idea if she were insecure or distraught or happy. Her wit was not only intimidating and distracting, it drowned out any kind of semi-ordinary conversation.

Actors are  like that, as are many writers. I find – if I want to — I can offer scintillating wit in conversation .. and at the same time say nothing of importance!   Even when I seem to be talking about myself or confessing something sincerely, most of it is  for entertainment purposes only. As much as I like to gab, I’ve also  learned to turn it off, or else it would drive people crazy…not to mention myself.  

Authentic conversation – what is it? Awkward pauses, long stretches of conversation, lots of uhhs and outright misunderstanding of the speaker’s true intentions until days or weeks later. What was the person saying? What were they really saying? Did I say the right thing? Or was it better just to respond spontaneously … no matter how awkward-sounding?  Two weeks ago a close friend told me a secret which stunned me. I just didn’t know what to say; it was a really important revelation – and even though we moved onto other subjects, the topic still loomed over the rest of our conversation.  She wasn’t a verbal person – but when she tried to articulate something, it was vital to pay attention.

Listen carefully – I’m serious! — the person who is making you laugh might be trying to avoid a full and unvarnished conversation. 

Verbiage can be interesting and revealing; they are nice ornaments to personality. I once read a book called “I Know You are Lying” by Mark McLish. McClish trained federal marshals in interviewing suspects.  McLish takes public statements of people in scandals (such as Herman Cain and Jerry Sandusky) and calls attention to verbal tics which suggest subterfuge. For writers and readers, this is no  great surprise, and indeed that’s what we like about literature – the roundabout clues that are baked inside narratives.

The funny thing is,  Pickler strikes me as  an open and honest person. She doesn’t lie; she misdirects. Ok, sure she might exaggerate a few details in her stories (we all do that).   To have survived a broken household like that and  not to be worn  down by the relentless celebrity machine says something about her survival skills, her perseverance and her preternatural faith that things will turn out for the best. Sure, we can thank her grandparents for that, but I believe it also has to come within Pickler herself. We can say that good looks explains her success, and that may be true; on the other hand,  we could also say that good looks can make you more cynical about all kinds of human relationships. Everyone wants to sleep with you or envies your popularity. 

Pickler doesn’t strike me as cynical. Cynicism is a disease which affects mainly teenagers, the retired, and criminals. If you are 30 or 40, you are too busy to be cynical about anything.  I’m always cynical after long bouts of unemployment, but once I find a job again, voila! that cynicism is gone.  Even when in pain and desperate circumstances, most   people don’t become cynical; they still  remember how great life used to be; that’s the kind of life they still long for.  The longing to recapture a pleasant life can often be the best antidote against cynicism (even if recapturing it turns out to be impossible).

Cynicism is what happens when you feel betrayed by someone. Betrayal doesn’t just mean “cheating” or “lying.” You feel betrayed when what has been implicitly  promised to you never materializes or  when someone  you counted upon has failed to come through.  By that definition, I guess we can say that Pickler has the perfect right to be doubly-cynical (because she has been twice-betrayed).  She may  still be at the stage where the pain is still too close; this pain can interfere with the empathy that would come naturally to someone so kind-hearted.  She has spoken publicly about forgiveness, and maybe she has reached this point; regardless she has already found  a lot of caring people to restore this trust. I’m sure she will pour this kindness into all kinds of charities.

Talk show ditziness is fine  (for a while at least), but eventually Pickler will find that making people laugh is less important than making them care and helping them to resist  the terrible sting of cynicism.