Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Thoughts from the Gym

So I was at the gym tonight, watching silent close-captioned TV (which definitely changes the experience--you forget how much of TV is auditory till you start going to the gym regularly). I was also listening to the slightly-dull piped-in techno music, but I was missing my iPod, which I'd left at home.

So as I was pounding away at the elliptical machine and the treadmill, trying to keep myself diverted (it's always harder to think the sort of deep thoughts on a treadmill that you would think outside on a walk), I wondered: if your caloric usage is supposed to be lower than your normal levels when you're watching TV, and you're trying to burn as many calories as possible at the gym, is it counter-productive for them to have TVs at the gym? Or is the lower-than-normal thing only true if you're sitting in front of the TV without doing anything else?

Or is it only true if the audio is on?

Furthermore, does it say more about my need to be entertained or more about the gym environment that I need three different "entertainment" sources at once to keep myself working out for a full hour?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Can't Even Keep a Virtual Plant Alive

I've known for years that I've had a black thumb. The one time I managed to keep a plant alive for six months, I used that victory as proof that it was okay to get a couple of pets. Well, thankfully the pets are still alive (mostly because they play a much more active role in making sure I know it when they're low on food or water), because the plant died shortly after I got the pets.

But today I descended to a new low: I killed a virtual plant I'd been tending.

To be exact, it was a virtual Chia Pet on my Mac Dashboard.

I'm still not quite sure what happened. All I had to do was give it two virtual drops of water every day or two. I'd been doing so well. It was thriving.

But today I opened up my Dashboard, and there it was. On its back with X's through its little faux(virtual)-ceramic eyes.

Of course, I quickly pressed a button and--presto!--it disappeared, to be replaced with a fresh new virtual Chia Pet instantly. No time allowed for guilt in the virtual world. No need to clean up the dried-up plant detritus. No one around to witness my negligence. Things carry less weight in the virtual world; it's easy to think there are fewer consequences. In some ways, there are. Because things evolve so quickly, it's easy to give anything that occurs in a virtual space less weight than anything that occurs in the real world. It takes an extra effort to give things the significance they sometime deserve.

Not that the death of my free virtual Chia Pet is one of those things that deserves significance. But on the other hand, I feel like I've descended to a new low. It seems like I can't even keep a virtual plant alive.

Which proves, I suppose, that there's some continuity between the physical and virtual parts of my life. There are many people who would see that as healthy. But it's still sort of sad that my virtual Chia Pet died. A virtual moment of silence, please.

[insert moment here]

Okay, that's enough. It's just a plant. One made out of pixels at that. And it was free. Of course, it did look like a turtle...

Thursday, September 14, 2006

These Days, It Costs to Fail...

At $9.95 a Page, You Expected Poetry?: In this New York Times article, the reporter did a little investigative journalism to show that the web has only made it easier for cheating students to fail. If they don't choose the incredibly-easily-available (and therefore incredibly-easily-detectable-by-professors) free term paper sites, they have the choice for "pay for an original paper" sites. But according to this article, a random sampling of these sites produced papers that would get low or failing grades. Apparently the people who run these sites aren't rocket scientists--or maybe they are, and don't know anything about Hamlet or the fall of the Roman empire. They certainly seem to be good economists--the sites wouldn't be around in such plenty if they didn't get plenty of business. *Sigh* Technology may change, but the ugly side of human nature doesn't.

Monday, September 11, 2006

In Memoriam: 9/11

Tonight, as I was watching some of the ubiquitous 5th-anniversary-of-9/11 coverage on TV, I was pulled back, as so many Americans (and so many others) likely were, to the emotions I felt while watching the much, much more ubiquitous coverage that was taking place nearly five years ago about this tragedy. Much could be said about whether the coverage birthed and/or egged on the grieving process for the U.S., how much technology took part in that role, and whether that was healthy, but I don't really want to talk about that. I'd much rather say that I'm glad they took the time to interview some prominent poets at the time, who said that, among other things, art would help us to heal. And I'm glad that technology helped us to hear that message with the others.

It certainly helped some of us. I, of course, like so many others, wrote a (very healing, at least for me) poem about the event, and I thought it would be an appropriate memorial of the 5th anniversary to share it here:

“Seven of ten adults aren’t sleeping”

Who can sleep? with the questions
sighing above our heads and no words
to describe them much less the answers.

Oh, there have been words, borrowed words
grasping words, but we the people
are beyond finding appropriate words,

definitive words. The events (such the
wrong word, makes them sound like a
football game or concert) are so

inappropriate (and that’s the wrong
word, like some naughty kid swore
in church), so discomforting (wrong

too, as though we sat collectively on
a hard sofa), so terribly unreal and
already fading before we can catch

our breaths, before they’re counted,
before the others are done lifting the sickening
tons of human ash mixed with mighty steel

fallen. Who can sleep?

--Deborah Leiter, 9/24/2001

Thursday, September 07, 2006

A Connection Between E-communication and Creativity

"The drive to write, that primal glee we felt as children when we learned the letters that formed our name and then the words that formed our world, is a drive that has been buried in our frantic, electrical, telephonic age.

"'E-mail' is a rebalancing of the wheel. People love e-mail because they love to write. Furthermore, because it is instantaneous, e-mail tricks people into evading their censor. E-mail isn't 'real' writing. It's something more casual and quirky and inventive. It's somehow naughty and anarchistic, like passing notes in school. E-mail tempts us into writing because it's a nonauthoritarian place to write. We can dash off quick notes, break thoughts in the middle, say, 'I'll get back to you later.' E-mail allows us intimacy without formality. No wonder we love it. It lets us drop the rock."

--Julia Cameron, The Right to Write (1998), on the stimulation of creativity through electronic communication (34)

Judging from this quote, I have a feeling Julia Cameron is gleeful over blogging and instant messaging now that both have taken off so thoroughly. And although their frequent use in business has meant these media are beginning to evolve their own levels of formality and informality in the same way that conversations and speeches have such levels, it's true that in general the instantaneous nature of these media often mean that we write much more, and much more creatively, than we ever thought we could.

I know I've had many a case of writer's block solved by writing out an idea in an email to a friend. And I know perfectly well that the times in my life I didn't think I kept a journal could be well documented by the email conversations I exchanged with my friends during those months. It's funny, because I've heard many people say the level of literacy in North America is going down because of the use of such media. Although I don't deny that the sort of writing often produced through such forms is a different kind of writing than what's been done before, I maintain that the written word has become more important than ever. But because it's easy to write and often more informal and easily deletable (not to mention a bit unstable--think of hard drives), it doesn't count in our minds.

Of course, the sort of writing that "evades the censor" isn't always the best final-draft material, which has gotten quite a few people in trouble during the last few years, as e-communication has gained a certain amount of ascendancy in our culture. But Julia Cameron's certainly right when she claims that it helps to start brainstorming in writing, to overcome writer's block and to stimulate our creative use of language. Furthermore, instantaneous communication also means instaneous response, which allows us to more easily hone our communication abilities during the early-draft stages of writing than ever before. If practice in writing makes perfect, our culture (you would think) would be well on its way.

Of course, that doesn't mean that we necessarily have as much practice at really polishing things before we send them off on their merry, instantaneous way--which is probably the situation to which those decrying the literacy levels are referring. I definitely agree that the fact that we as the members of our society are feeling too rushed to polish our writing is a definite loss. As with most things, there are both up sides and down sides to this e-communication revolution. The question, of course, is: which situation is better? I'm not sure that question is ultimately answerable except on a case-by-case basis, but it certainly is an interesting one...

Saturday, September 02, 2006

"Eavesdropping" on the Web

I know, I know--it's become a cliche to comment on the richness of information available on the Internet. Nonetheless, a new usage for the Web--this huge, widely inconsistent but fascinating source of communication, information, entertainment, and so much more--occurred to me today, and I'm so glad it did.

To explain, I should go back a few years, to the time when I started researching my first novel (which I'm now trying to get published). I didn't live in the place where my characters lived, so I took a lot of trips to the locale to gather information and research. Sure, you can find out a lot of stuff at the library and online, but nothing replaces experiencing the place, meeting the people, and doing a bit of stealth research by way of observing closely (and occasionally overhearing conversations) at local hangouts. As any writer will tell you, understanding dialogue and culture are key to writing well... And reading too many written personal accounts, real or fictional--newspapers seem okay, but not those that go through an editorial process before being published in a book--feels like cheating to me. I don't want to be unduly influenced by other writings.

So to zip back up to the present day, that novel manuscript is done (if that's possible, particularly before it's been through the long editorial process it's bound to undergo if it gets accepted and eventually published) and is working hard being regularly flung out out of the nest into the big, occasionally cold world of editors and agents for review. Enter new, baby novel being brainstormed, planned, researched, and generally gestating in the womb.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the places I need to visit to do experiential research for this new novel aren't as far away as the first one, so I've been able to spend a few hours and days here and there trying to understand the sorts of milieus my characters would live in and come from, what their mindsets would be, the sights, sounds, and smells they would experience, etc. Nothing can replace experiential research--there are things I'd never be able to understand without it. It's invaluable.

However, I've always felt a little uncomfortable about some of the sneakier parts of research, and particularly with the subject of this novel and my upcoming schedule, I may only have limited opportunities to do it anyway for this project. Plus, I know how uncomfortable people are with being possible subjects to be "studied" for a novel, and I never want people to feel they've been exploited as subjects (even though the actual fictional outputs end up quite different from my original material). But I need an opportunity to make sure my characters are real and well-rounded and believable. So I'm glad to have thought of a way to "eavesdrop" on the stories, attitudes, and culture of the sorts of people my characters would be around that wasn't available until the recent boom in--you guessed it--blogging.

That's right--all those personal blogs out there are a mine for someone interested in character study. They're usually not as refined as something that would be published in print, and that rawness, that spontaneousness, is perfect for my purposes. I'm particularly fond of the kind of blogs that are written under a pseudonym, since they seem to often be better material. After a couple of short Google searches, I found some lovely ones today that will suit my purposes admirably. I'm very excited to start keeping up with them--it will complement my in-person research excellently.

Thank you, creators of the Internet.

And thank you, bloggers. I appreciate it. Don't worry--if bits of people like you end up in my novel, you'll never recognize it. Besides, as an author I have a code: I never write a story until I can empathize with all of the types of people who appear in it. Thank you for the opportunity to help me with empathizing with you and others like you so I can (hopefully) introduce others to that world in a slightly different way than you've let me into yours. As a fiction writer, it's my job.