Friday, March 30, 2007

RnR: Attracting Readers

. Sean J. Vaughan headshot by Sean J. Vaughan

This article describes how readers can find and be guided to Reason and Rhyme articles. Our main traffic source is Google and so our first job is to ensure Google finds and ranks our articles as highly as possible.

Google PageRank

Google PageRank is how google assigns "importance" to web pages. Most of our web pages are either unranked or have a low PageRank. A very small percentage (<5%) of our pages have a medium PageRank. A page's PageRank increases by having other pages link to it and the increase is larger when the linking site has a larger PageRank.

Still, when you search for "Reason and Rhyme" you will should find our links on the first results page. Many of our articles will show up towards the beginning of the search results when you search for "epic poetry", "statistics of stereotyping", "the sonnet", or other queries related to our articles. Certainly most of our authors show up near the beginning of the search results when searched for.

For more information about google pagerank, read google's description. And, you can read a gajillion blog articles about it. Seriously, at least a gajillion.

Writing Articles for Traffic

Writing articles for traffic (aka Search Engine Optimized or SEO) isn't our primary motivition for writing. In fact, SEO approaches may hurt the quality of articles (e.g. poems). In general, though, the SEO approaches tend to make an article better; they are very similar to what I learned in journalism class.

Here are a few important things you can do to make your article Search Engine Optimized:

  • Include keywords and key phrases in your article. A good strategy is to imagine what readers would search for if they wanted to find your article. If it's appropriate for the style of your article, make sure those keywords or key phrases are in your article. Maria's Epic Poetry article is very complete and so naturually contains many of the keywords and key phrases that are searched for including important epic poetry writer names, examples, themes and elements.
  • Even better, include keywords and key phrases in your article title. This draws even more readers if they see what they were searching for in the title of the page returned.
  • Make the title simple and catchy or provocative. This is where it's fun to pretend to be the classic newspaper editor. I imagine the excellently played newspaper editor in the spiderman movies. In any case, the title is what the search link will be in search results and is the first thing that can grab the reader's attention. Do your article justice with the best title. For example, I worked with my Dad on the title for his "Statistics of Stereotyping" article and it paid off in increased search results. We found something that was simple, had a bit of alliteration, fits the article well, and is thus searched for commonly and found.
  • Put the meat of your article at the beginning. Most people browsing the Internet are not prepared to read a long article. If you put the main points of the article or what the article will be covering in the beginning then the reader knows what they are getting in to and may stay to read the rest, bookmark it for later, or buy a book.

For more SEO tips, check out my SEO bookmarks or check out all of the popular SEO bookmarks on

Blog Carnivals

The single most important thing we've done to increase our google pagerank and traffic is to submit articles to related Blog Carnivals. From wikipedia:

A Blog Carnival is a type of blog event. It is similar to a magazine, in that it is dedicated to a particular topic, and is published on a regular schedule, often weekly or monthly. Each edition of a blog carnival is in the form of a blog article that contains permalinks links to other blog articles on the particular topic.

Having articles in blog carnivals provides 2 main benefits. First, blog carnival readers are directed to the articles and, second, the articles get linked to which increases the Pagerank for those articles.

Here is a list of blog carnivals we commonly submit articles to and the number of readers that tend to get referred to any single article:

  • The Storyblogging carnival: ~15 readers
  • Carnival of the Godless: ~100 readers
  • Ringing of the Bards (poetry): ~10 readers
Note that these numbers vary to some extent based upon which blog hosts any particular carnival.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

Confessional Poetry

A Flowing Ceremony of Trouble and Lighti

Confessional poetry is the art of suffering. — M.L. Rosenthal

Maria Claudia Faverio headshot by Maria Claudia Faverio

In her book on Anne Sexton, Caroline Hall defines confessional poetryii as "a reaction against the Eliotic school of extinction of personality"iii, "a specific and legitimate movement in twentieth century poetry, […] at once a modern manifestation of an ongoing tradition, a reaction against a previously dominant mode, and a unique development", then adding that we should not be surprised "that its advent provoked such violent and emotional reaction among critics and readers alike. Such responses were no doubt motivated and inspired in part by the very personal, violent, and emotional nature of the poetry itself."

As Mark Doty remarked in his essay The 'Forbidden Planet' of Character: The Revolutions of the 1950s (1991), referring to Wilbur's metaphor of art as a window (temperate, reasoned art) as opposed to art as a door (the world as an extension of the poet's worldiv), it was a time when poets finally decided not only to open the windows, but to break them, and to widen them into doors.

In 1959, two milestones of confessional poetry were published: Lowell's Life Studies and Snodgrass's Heart's Needle (both award winners). The first book that is considered confessional, however, is Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems, published in 1956v, almost exactly one hundred years after Whitman's Leaves of Grass. In his review of Howl for The Nation, Rosenthal wrote:

Ginsberg hurls, not only curses, [...] everything—his own paranoid memories of a confused, squalid, humiliating existence in the "underground" of American life and culture, [as well as] mock political and sexual "confessions" . . .
While Lowell and Snodgrass used a milder tone than Ginsberg, they still approached themes that were very personal, like dissolution of marriage and fear of estrangement, thus creating powerful poems packed with meaning and feeling. In Skunk Hour, Lowell explicitly says that his mind is "not right", not only a confession, but a confession in a quite colloquial, unashamed tone. They also made use of (sometimes racing) associative logic, a device that was then most successfully used by Sylvia Plath.

Anne Sexton holds a unique position among the confessional poets (Snodgrass, Lowell, Sexton, Plath and Berrymanvi). Her poems read more like a diary than poems in spite of all ambiguitiesvii and fictionalization (see i.e. The Double Image, a poem addressed to her daughter and started under the influence of Snodgrass, whom she greatly admired, a poem multiplying images in infinite regress in a way remindful of Borgesviii), as Brian Gallagher remarks in A Compelling Caseix - the diary of a doomed artist, a mental patient and a dying goddess, or simply a woman who doesn't fear to talk about taboosx like abortion and suicide in public, a woman who at the same time is well versed in mythology, religion and literature. They are poems that reflect "deep painful sections of her life"xi, at the same time though failing to tell her "terrible story" thoroughly in spite of all the realistic, even repulsive details, as James Dickey puts it in his review of To Bedlam and Part Way Backxii. They are poems of human intimacy and unique suffering, poems of personal failure and mental breakdown that arise from the will to understand and the will to purge, poems of sudden insight and also poems of rawness and guilt, but not poems of self-pity. They are poems meant to "rescue one's life from chaos", as Anne Sexton put it in a 1965 interview with Patricia Marx, the chaos that was also a result of the changes American society was undergoing. Ultimately they are poems of unique individuals, their "inscape" - all features typical of confessional poetry as opposed to other schools like the New York school. Anne Sexton confessed she suddenly found herself "in the poets" when she first attended a poetry course, asserting that she felt real among them (as opposed to her stereotyped role of housewife and mother typical of the American dreamxiii), discovering the power of "language"xiv. In Transformations, Anne even transformed Grimm's fairy tales by adding a personal note to them and addressing her own insecurities and fears and by shifting them into our time.

Confession obviously needs two interlocutors: a penitent (who is not always the same person as the poet) and a confessor, a technique remindful of the dramatic monologue, with the difference that, in confessional poetry, the auditor doesn't have to remain hidden. And none of them has the monopoly of truth of course. Many of Sexton's fans identified with the persona described in her poems, although their lives might have been (and probably were) quite different. Anne received almost 900 letters from fans, all with their personal stories of course, and yet convinced to see their own lives in her descriptions, a fact accentuated by her deliberate ambiguity, like the expression "my brother" that we find in her poetry, without having any proof that that person was really her brother. She herself left the question open in an interview. As Lowell remarked, it is allowed "to tinker with facts" in poetry, this does not make the facts less real.xv Anne also often referred to her children as if she had only one daughter instead of two, and she never had an illegitimate child or an abortion.

Anne Sexton's poetry is a poetry of life, a poetry of experience in spite of her constant longing for death (because "the worms know better"xvi), thus differing from Sylvia Plath's poetry, a poetry that mythologizes deathxvii, although she obviously also has a lot in common with Plath (with whom she was befriended).

In our days we can safely assert that confessional poetry is far from defunct. Indeed, David Graham and Kate Sonntag published an anthology of contemporary autobiographical poetry, After Confession: Poetry as Autobiographyxviii, emphasizing the still lingering concern of both poets and critics for the "I". The authors of this anthology describe this tendency as "the notion that first-person lyrics can embrace a larger social vision, achieving revelation over narcissism, universal resonance over self-referential anecdote."

What Brendan Galvin criticized in some confessional poetry, however, is not the confessions it contains, but rather its lack of context, that makes the reader feel quite uninterested. The reader must get involved in those dark emotions ("deepest scars, secrets, grieves and desires"xix) that emerge in confessional poetry, he must recognize himself. Good confessional poetry is concerned with experiences that affect us all or "could" affect us all. Therefore it must contain details apt to win the reader's trust; indeed the reader must become an "accomplice" in rendering the final meaning of the poem. Sometimes though, the reader may be reluctant to accept his complicity, and this is when the inverted bowl of Sexton's For John must be disguised as a "strange sun" to appeal to him. As Kafka had said: "A book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us". And Sylvia Plath had commented: "I think that personal experience shouldn't be a kind of shut box and a mirror-looking narcissistic experience. I believe it should be generally relevant to such things as Hiroshima and Dachau, and so on". Sylvia Plath's comment is crucial in understanding confessional poetry. Confessional poetry is a means of dialogue and communication, it is a means of avoiding Narcissus' fate by finding a way to talk to Echo, it is not negative self-absorption, but a way of communing with the "something outside of oneself". Indeed, pure narcissismus proves a dead end. In For John, the persona only sees her own death when staring in the mirror: "my own selfish death / outstared me".

It is important at this stage to differentiate between "confessional poetry" and "self-expression". As Regan Good remarks in the Fence Magazinexx, confessional poetry has a universal value in spite of its personal confessions, it reveals universal truths, while self-expression is narcissistic in the negative meaning of the term, a "narrow diary of the mind"xxi. It is a poetry of the real world, "real situations, behind which the great gods play the drama of blood, lust and death", as Sylvia Plath puts it. Anne Sexton, for example, writes in The Fury of Sunsets:

All day I've built / a lifetime and now / the sun sinks to / undo it. / why am I here? / why do I live in this house? / who's responsible? eh?
This is clearly a powerful way to express universal doubts through personal questions, one's own persona. Although Anne Sexton has often been accused of narcissism, her narcissism, if at all, is a textual, not an autobiographical narcissism, as Gill remarks. Her poems focus on the speaker/persona to convey higher meanings behind the details of the case in question or also simple common ground, like the "commonplaces of the asylum" in For John.

And it is also a way, as A. Alvarez remarked, to break the mould of what he termed "the accepted Academic-Modern style" of the poetry that preceded the confessional movement.

Sylvia Plath, the other great confessional poet, is able to reveal universal truths through her use of emblems. Poems like Ariel, Lady Lazarus and Edge are poems that are not only confessional, but present the woman in them in a new, dignified light.

The figures in Plath's early poems are not as weak as the personas in the poems of other confessional poets, they maintain a sort of ritualistic defence against their situationxxii, her poems are poems that reflect the fight of the mind against extreme circumstances through intensification of its manipulative skills, which results in parody. The speakers of these poems are intelligent persons who don't succumb to circumstances, persons made rigid by suffering. It is through many of these speakers in her poems that Sylvia Plath reveals her own terrifying self-knowledge. In her middle period, Sylvia then writes poems whose characters cannot cope any more with their overwhelming, destructive life experiences, as in Zoo Keeper's Wife. Finally, in her later period, the speakers of her poems seem to be torn between the acceptance of their fate and loss of control over their lives and the need to find a way out of it, even through self-torture, as in Tulips. Sometimes the speaker's mind even rejoices in its self-imposed pain, as in The Tour.

As already stated, Sylvia Plath's poems address universal truths. Even a poem like Lady Lazarus, that is considered the most confessional of Plath's poems together with Daddy, must be read as a poem that reveals the way the suicidal person thinks, not only the speaker, but every suicidal person.

Confessional poetry is an important movement that shouldn't be disregarded as narcissistic, but rather be welcomed as a new way to involve the reader in the hermeneutic process and to approach universal values through the thematization of events out of the speakers' lives.


Byrne, E., Examining The Poetry Of Confession And Autobiography: After Confession: Poetry As Autobiography

Evans, S., Anne Sexton and the Confessional Poetry Movement

Gill, Jo, Twentieth Century Literature: Narcissism in Anne Sexton's Early Poetry

Good, R., My eyes have seen what my hand did, Fence Magazine, v.1 no.2

McCaffery, R.J. A Certain Sense of Order:  Confessionalism and Anne Sexton's Poetry

Uroff, M.D., Sylvia Plath and Confessional Poetry: A Reconsideration, in Iowa Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1977, pp. 104-15

Yezzi, D., Confessional poetry & the artifice of honesty, The New Criterion Vol. 16, No. 10, June 1998


i Berryman in Canto Amor

ii The term "confessional poetry" was introduced by Rosenthal in a rather disdainful tone, referring to "personal confidences, rather shameful".

iii Cf. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent". This current, originally meant as a reaction to Emerson's expansiveness, was then followed by the New Critics.

iv A feature that was introduced by Whitman's Leaves of Grass

v By the end of the Sixties, it had already sold 250,000 copies.

vi Berryman made an essential observation regarding confessional poetry. In 1970 he namely told an interviewer: "My idea is this, the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point he's in business."

vii For example in "You, Doctor Martin"

viii Cf. also the "cracked mirrors" and the inverted glass bowl (which, like the cracked mirror, reflects a broken, distorted, "superficial" image, thus functioning as a prism and reaching a balance between mirror and lamp) in For John, as well as the linguistic devices (I/you) that aim at rendering multiplicity

ix Denver Quarterly 21 (1986), 96

x Up until the end of the eighteenth century, it was considered indecent even to talk about daffodils one had seen in a field, or about one's grandfather's tackle box in the attic, remarks Billy Collins in "My Grandfather's Tackle Box", a situation that started to change with the Romanticism, based on John Locke's ideal of the uniqueness of the individual consciousness.

xi In 1968, Anne Sexton herself had pointed out in an interview that "pain engraves a deeper memory" than joy.

xii In this book Anne describes her experiences in a mental hospital in a very direct, frank way, comparing the patients to schoolchildren.

xiii Cf. also Sylvia Plath's The Applicant.

xiv Cf. Ostriker, Alicia, "Anne Sexton and the Seduction of the Audience" in Sexton: Selected Criticism. Ed. Diana Hume George. Copyright © 1988 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

xv Later, however, in After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography, Ted Kooser will express a certain scepticism and unease about the tendency to intermingle facts and reality, regarding it as a breach of the "agreement" between poet and reader. If this blending occurs, it has to be made clear in order not to deceive the reader into believing something that has not happened. In particular, Kooser condemns poets who invents facts about their persona in order to win the reader's sympathy and affection. Most other critics allow for some blending for the sake of literature. Intentional deceiving, however, is still criticized.

xvi In Anne Sexton's The Fury of Sunrises

xvii Cf. Johnson, Greg in "The Achievement of Anne Sexton" The Hollins Critic (1984)

xviii Robert Phillips had called the age of confessional poetry of the 50s and 60s the great "Age of Autobiography".

xix Cf. Clare Pollard

xx V.1 no.2

xxi Cf. Sexton's For John

xxii Cf. Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

New Study Shows Reading Studies Is Bad For You

Researchers say more research is needed

Richard May headshot by Richard May

Top experts question value of reading studies paid for by corporations with an agenda. New research by Pharmzer Inc. contradicts this claim. Six months ago similar study of effects of reading studies produced opposite results. Study of effects of studies suggests that information overload and cognitive dissonance, produced by contradictory study results, causes heightened anxiety and depression. Pharmzer says Biafra® may be the answer, "vitamin" supplements highly dangerous, according to new research. Researchers say more research on the effects of reading studies is necessary. Pharmzer says if children are placed on proper medications, the psychological problems associated with reading new studies of contradictory new studies could be eliminated. Governor of Texas agrees effects of reading studies of studies is a major public health problem and says vaccinations of all school age children should be mandatory. President Bush compassionately warned Americans of the effect of reading dangerous Canadian studies of new studies. New study by the U.S. General Accounting Office questions the dangers of reading studies of new Canadian studies. USDA cautions Americans that according to new studies by top experts, Alzheimer's syndrome appearing in adolescence is entirely normal* and is occurring simply because American teenagers are living longer now, not an possible effect of environmental toxins, ubiquitous microwave radiation and EMF or a variant form CJD caused by prions. Other studies of Alzheimer's suggest that in the past it was uncommon in Americans before the age of eighteen. Researchers say that according to new studies by top researchers, more research is necessary. Previous studies question this result.



Monday, March 26, 2007


Charmaine Frost headshot by Charmaine Frost

Those green blades and buds are man-made
From cut plastic or torn rags: We recognize
Rain when umbrellas sprout on wet-darkened streets
Like mushrooms in damp cellars; with high-rise eyes,
Guess at sunniness when a glowing finger pokes
Between tall towers. Blue light flickers wall to wall
On a vacuumed vista always dry and neat,
Climate thermostatically corrected, air sifted
Clean of particulates drifting to walks below
Where now only monthly profits grow.

Aqua, turquoise, sea-green, teal;
Silver, ashen, mid-toned, steel?
I see the real through factory-tinted shades;
Cement and cypress are man-made.

fog city


Friday, March 23, 2007

Chess Column: Laurent

Albert Frank Headshot by Albert Frank

Michel Laurent
Michel Laurent

As in the two previous chess columns, I will try to show that's chess is an art form. This time I will show a beautiful combination played in Belgium in 2001 by Michel Laurent, a friend of mine.

Michel, who was playing black, had reached a superior position (first diagram below). The White King looks in danger, Black is already a pawn up. Black can win a second pawn on d4, or even a piece if he plays:

1. …Qf1+ 2. Qxf1…Nxe3+.
But all the elements are there for a mate — there is a forced mate in (maximum) 6 moves. Here it is: 1…Qf2+!! 2.Bxf2…Rxf2+ 3.Kh3…Rxh2+ 4.Kxg4—Nf6+! 5.Kf3—e4+ 6.Ke3 —Bh6 mate!

In the final position [second diagram], the three remaining black pieces (A rook, a bishop and a Knight) have a role in the mate, together with the pawn on e4. One could say that everything is perfectly harmonious, like in some paintings or music.

Initial Chess Position
Initial Position

Final Position
Final Position


Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Tav

Richard May headshot by Richard May

The Tav is a bit of delusion manifested in the technology of dreams, a symphony crystallized into mathematical logic and then distilled again into a cloud of souls silently passing over world after world. The Aleph of Borges was to space as eternity was to time. The Tav is to consciousness as eternity is to time and as the Aleph was to space.

The Tav is a sort of time machine, without the machine or the time, a DMT trip without the drugs or the hallucinations. It can be tuned as one tunes the bands of an ordinary radio, changing from station to station, music to music, program to program; But with the Tav literally moving from world to world, time-place to time-place, life form to life form, consciousness to consciousness, moment to moment. One can tune each of the dimensions of location in time, spatial location and the dimension of biological, cybernetic or hyper-dimensional energetic consciousness independently of the others.

A transfinite analogue of a co-ordinate search engine explores the non-local quantum matrix underlying the level of physical reality at various degrees of hyper-dimensionality. When a certain specific non-local data point is defined by a sufficient number of bits of information, then one's mindstream, or an emulation of it, is instantaneously transferred, independently of distance in time and space, by quantum-entanglement based teleportation to that "point". One's mindstream emulation then "descends" from the quantum non-local matrix into the mindstream associated with that specific spatio-temporal location of the Multiverse, if any mindstream exists there. If not one becomes insentient, either temporarily or permanently.

The first explorers who stumbled upon the Tav simply vanished into non-existence from the reference frame of the world in which they had once stood. They made the mistake of randomly adjusting one or more of the tuning dials, only to find themselves transformed into the vacuum of space, itself, between the stars, part of a mountainside on some ancient unknown planet or giant lizard like creature copulating or being devoured with or by some other equally revolting life forms. Their instantaneous fate was utterly unknown and unknowable, even to themselves.

Later those left behind in the various worlds in which the Tav simultaneously existed, eventually learned the importance of carefully pre-programming the Tav to insure one's "safe return", as whatever sort of conscious life form one had been before, and to the same time, place and world. Perhaps in less than a minute one had momentarily been an immense conscious quantum computer of an unimaginably advanced civilization on a world in an undiscovered galaxy, then a squid-like creature being eaten by a sort of fish more fearsome than a shark, a radiant ancient plasma life form living in the corona of a red giant, Cleopatra in the throes of orgasm by the Nile, only then to become some sort of mother lizard with a 300-plus IQ, lovingly watching her eggs hatch in a lagoon of a world of ineffable strangeness.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Persian Pundits and Siamese Sages

Charmaine Frost headshot by Charmaine Frost

A mathematically mischievous cat, Mephistopheles,
Could square the hypoteneuse and meow hypotheses
About the world's origin in 3 seconds round or flat
While Socrates, no simple syllogist, was customarily curious
How dogs could yap and yip in yelps sufficiently furious
To appall any meditatively mannerly, self respecting cat.

Socrates was a wise old cat,
Could elude prying humans, out-think any rat;
More pensive than bloodhounds of brooding brows,
He'd paw his whiskers like a white moustache,
Meow about his doubt in high "what"s or "how"s.

Ceasar, however much he'd try to fool us,
Was a lounging Tom, not conquering Julius;
Though, when dreaming of mouse-lands in a milk sea,
He paraded, tail a banner and ears high,
And ruled rodent realms with a gourmet's grinning glee.

siamese sage


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

To Friends in Faraway Places

Albert Frank Headshot by Albert Frank

Friend toasting A man goes every day at 8:00 PM to a bar in Paris, where he orders two whiskies. After some months, the bartender asks the man, "Sir, why do you order two whiskies?"

The man answers, "I have a friend in another country, who orders each day the same as I — so we feel nearer one to the other."

A few months later the man, who has continued to come every day, suddenly orders only one whisky during each of his visits. After a few days the bartender asks him, "Sir, why do you now order only one whisky?"

The man answers: "It is because I have stopped drinking."



Monday, March 19, 2007

The Importance of Belief

Richard May headshot by Richard May

I wonder, does God, cultivate irrational beliefs in Himself or is this only of importance for us?

I do strongly believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster!

This is what He wants of me most of all.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Truth and illusion and Crawpappy's and the thousand dollar pizza

Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz

Someone wrote, what is illusion? How can such a concept have meaning? If you see it, you see it. How can it be illusion? And an esteemed friend sent me a story about a $1000 pizza, topped with lobster, creme fraiche and a mountain of caviar. Let me meander around the two.

I'm nearsighted. If I'm walking down the crowded street and see in the distance a fellow eating a slice of pizza topped with ricotta cheese and olives and think, that's caviar and creme fraiche he's eating, he's scarfing a slice of that $1000 pizza... that's an illusion. If I march into that New York City restaurant and eat that $1000 pizza and think, I'm a better person because I ordered that pizza, I will earn respect that's valuable and worth having when the world finds out I ate that pizza... well, that's an illusion of a different sort. But the rich, salty taste that fills my mouth as I eat the pizza I wasted my money on -- that's not an illusion. It's real. It's a taste.

And the taste of life I had last night, sitting in my favorite bar, and more than a little depressed because for weeks I had eagerly anticipated that St. Paddy's Day pullulating hive of activity and instead walked in on a room that was somnolent and silent, the taste of life I had when finally around ten at night the crowds came pouring in, the joy of life I had when finally surrounded by crowds and crowds of loud, sweaty smiling and very happy people — that's no illusion. And I thought about how rare and infinitely complex and beautiful it all was, all those long and dissimilar histories and experiences and lifetimes that shaped and molded all those people at the bar, and the whole universe converging to allow it, when the vast majority of conceivable universes would blow every molecule apart in an instant, or shred it and scatter it between a thousand dimensions... the glory and benevolence of God, some say, or, as others say, a glorious accident. But in any event a miracle, truly glorious and complex and incredible and worthy of awe, worthy of kneeling down before in wonder. Maya, maya, it's just too rare and incredible and full of shining joy to be dismissed as mere illusion. It's the real deal, the million dollar pizza. And if this is just illusion, hey, give me another slice!!

Brian at Crawpappy's


Thursday, March 15, 2007


Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz

T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliott

A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to him, and which no one else can enter. That, basically, was T. S. Eliot's view. To analyze a poem by scrutinizing the life of the poet, he believed, was banal, robotic and misleading. And yet, it's so tempting. Someone who protests too much surely has something to hide. So when a friend asked me for my thoughts on Eliot's Prufrock, that exhilarating roller-coaster ride through a minefield of prophesy and boredom, Eliot's life was the first thing that came to mind.

Prufrock was published in 1917. Eliot was in his third year of marriage with Vivian Haigh-Wood. He loved her deeply and longed for a partner to share his creative explorations. But life with Vivian Haigh-Wood, who probably had BPD and whose behavior was to say the least erratic, was, like the poem, a roller coaster ride through a minefield. So of course I thought of her.

Prufrock is quite sensuous and at times erotic in its imagery:

"And I have known the arms already, known them all
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
It is perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?"

The protagonist wants to love, to be loved, and most important to communicate with someone. What's the point of any thought or exploration, he says, if she, perhaps his beloved, perhaps anyone at all, says, "that is not what I meant at all"

I've always thought, along with everyone else that the poem was an indictment of British society in 1917. Maybe it is. But, thinking about the lonely barren wasteland which was life for Eliot and Vivian, I realized that maybe it's more universal: a Jeremiad about love and communication. Wittgenstein concluded his Tractatus, a philosophical investigation on the nature of language and the limits of communication with this: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Maybe Prufrock is a lamentation on the limits of human beings. Yes, there's always the hidden condemnation in the poem, he should have done better, he wasted his life but he should have done better. Maybe he couldn't. Maybe no one could.

Finally to top off my ruminations, I thought of this: 1917... there was a war on. As Prufrock drinks his tea, thousands of soldiers were charging into German machine guns and dying. Maybe that's the prophetic ghost at this banquet.

And then all at once my house of cards came tumbling down. Though not published in 1917, Prufrock was written in 1910. There was no war, no Viv, Eliot was, by his own account a virgin and had never visited England. So maybe Eliot was right. Biographical interpretation may look pretty on paper, but it's a waste of time. But then I realized: there is a sort of biographical analysis that does make sense. It's foolish to tie a theme in a symphony with the life of the composer. But one can attempt to analyze the structure of the melody.

Eliot grew up in staunchly bourgeois St Louis. He then moved to Boston and went to Harvard, which was quite cultured but was a safe isolated harbor from the winds sweeping in the modern age. In 1910 Eliot spent a year in Paris. And landed smack in the middle of artistic ferment. He may or may not have seen Braque and Gris and Picasso lording it over their acolytes in some picturesque Montmartre cafe, but he certainly was aware of cubism. And if you take cubism at its word — that it takes familiar objects, dissects them, reassembles them — you could argue that the meandering, elliptical structure of Prufrock is indeed cubist.

In 1910 Paris it seemed as if momentous things were happening, as if profundity was just around the corner. So maybe Prufrock is simply an indictment of St Louis compared to Paris. (In 1910, later on the US caught up with a vengeance.) Women come and go talking of Michelangelo. Maybe all that Eliot meant was, they should be talking of Picasso. But maybe, in spite of all, Prufrock indeed is a Jeremiad about love and communication. That's universal. And after all, as every writer knows, a writer writes alone.


Picture Perfect

Charmaine Frost headshot by Charmaine Frost

bird woman "Americana, circa 2001," the electronic plaque read. "Anorexically lean bodies, exuberant hair devoid of taboo gray, fleshy lips, long necks, gleaming teeth and apparent age between 20 and 25 were judged officially beautiful by the aesthetic elite of the era. Examplars of beauty, called 'models' and 'stars', were shown in popular magazines and on television - precursors to today's e-zines and digi-vision. Plastic surgery and cosmetic dentistry allowed wealthy Americans to look as young as their grandchildren and to flaunt bleached, equally sized teeth aligned in perfectly horizontal rows and without gaps between them".

Mandy squinted through the hermetically sealed Plexiglas case at the pictures imprinted on glossy flaps. The images pouted with lips as loose as whale blubber, or flashed rows of teeth as glaring as fluorescent lights; if some of those smiles got any wider, Mandy thought, the lips would extend beyond the sides of the face. Chins as sharp as arrowheads jutted above sinewy necks and bony, insolent shrugs; buffed sandstone cheeks protruded cliff-like beneath the eyes of a wary snake or waiting shark. Paper people with paper souls, unmoved by inner secrets to half smiles or winks, but well preserved for decades despite the fragility of pulp.

"Amazing how backward our great-grandparents were," Mandy commented, while combing her fingers through her fluorescent green hair until it stuck out from her scalp in a hundred spikes.

"Yeah, like over there." Amy giggled as she pointed to The Penis Cage. In those days, such a display would have been shut away as too pornographic for any eyes but the cops. Now, with every corner Doc offering hermaphroditic implants and wall-attached dildos an option on most architectural plans, visitors viewed the exhibit with mockery, anthropological curiosity or stoic indifference.

"Don't waste your money on penis enlarging exercises, hair implants, or imported tincture of tiger testicle. Order our He-Man penis pills, guaranteed to add 3-6 inches in length or your money back!" the ad screamed. Below, a "before" photo showed a shame-faced balding man with legs splayed to show a dangling nubbin; the "after" photo pictured a grinning, toupeed Mr. Atlas, hips thrust forward to flaunt a pink penis as thick as a baseball bat and almost as long. Beside this display stood a half-full jar of genuine Viagra pills, from the collection of a famous philanthropist, and a gortex penile prosthesis.

"And a few years later, Silicon Chic," Amy snickered and shook her head; her hair shot out in a wooly, glowing purple friz. "The software whizzes were getting rich, so the nerd look was in - hot, hip, totally cool dude, the look for anyone wanting to be a TV god. Don't waste your time with penis exercises and weight lifting; just wrap masking tape around the nosepiece of your glasses, fluff your hair out Einstein-style and, viola, instant Babe Magnet, cheap and intense Sex Appeal!"

"You've got the slang all mixed up," Mandy snorted. "Hip was decades before cool, and cool was out when the geeks conquered Hollywood. And Silicon Chic - the beachball breasts stuffed with plastic - was already out. Read some history." Reports of silicon's toxicity had scared women away from the breast implants which were outlawed in 2015, after scientists linked an epidemic of dementia to silicon sludge in the brain.

spotted woman

The two women ambled towards the museum exit, a vaulted oak portal in which an old-world artisan had carved intertwining vines and intricate angels of the old mythology; a visit to the latest anthropological exhibit often entertained them more than a digi-vision special. Since that era of impotence pills and hallowed gauntness, anthropologists had discovered so much about man's distant past, and an antediluvian golden age of wiser, stronger ancestors, recalled in the supernatural figures of ancient folklore; those lost tribes were the beautiful people.

"Some people are trying for the Titan look," Mandy sighed. "But it's still too painful, too risky. If they're going to be 10 feet tall, they need extra vertebrae inserted, leg bones and arm bones lengthened. My neighbor's been bedridden since the procedure and on a morphine drip. His doctor says "Wait, it takes time for things to knit together and heal'. But some of the New Titans can't keep their balance, walking in stilts with their heads so high up. And they all need canes. I think we've made a better choice."

Amy nodded and squinted up at the electronic billboard flashing news updates, beauty tips and ads above the buildings; even on cloudy days the sky glowed orange and lavender and fire yellow as a hundred billboards broadcasted from stations across the globe.

"Wild, wooly, hair in a spiking halo?," the blinking words on the nearest billboard announced. "A snub-nose, wrinkly puffed cheeks, round eyes wide with intelligent wonder? The flat gnarled feet and broad palms of those Nordic magicians, who could see the future and divine how to cook riverside weeds into longevity potions? See Dr. Magurty, board certified and officially recommended, for a full transformation. Installment payment accepted."

Amy rubbed her wide flaring nostrils under an upturned, wrinkled nose, still red from the recent surgery. "I'm getting the muscles around my eyes loosened next week," she said, "Then the eyelids lifted - for the round effect".

Mandy nodded, recalling her recent wait in the antiseptically chrome antechamber, before the anesthesia and the transformation of her chin from an unsightly lantern jaw to a fashionably receding, gentle bulge.

"When I was a kid," Mandy mused, " I rummaged through old trunks my parents had kept - their heritage in boxes. I came across one of my great-grandmother's diaries, from when she was 7 or 8. One part was all about trolls - back then, plastic dolls in lederhosen, with floppy feet; the kids would yank them up by their hair, which was just like ours." Mandy sighed. Great-grandma had written about sitting in the sandbox, listening to the rusty chains of swings creak, waiting for her puppy to lick her with a tongue as long as her face, and fantasizing how her collection of troll dolls escaped at night to gather under the rope bridge and conspire against the Evil Empire of torturer tots.

"That whole diary - it seemed so mysterious. Sandboxes, swings, so much that I'd never even seen."

"Except for trolls," Amy grinned.

"Except for trolls - nowadays," Mandy agreed. "Did you know, they considered trolls ugly back then?"

"They didn't know any better," Amy asserted. "Less advanced."

"Yeah." Mandy shrugged. "No sense of mankind's true history. I guess that explains their poor taste."

siamese balancers


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Miracle Of Intelligent Design

Richard May headshot by Richard May

If the universal constants of physics were not so precisely fine tuned by the IDIOT (Intelligent Designer Of Time), then I would not be standing now in the precise geometric center of all hyper-space(s), sending out smoke signals to the stars, searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, and waiting for interstellar spam. The miracle would be if nothing existed.


Monday, March 12, 2007

Hallmark World

Maria Claudia Faverio headshot by Maria Claudia Faverio

Hallmark world
The chemical beats of the sun
forget themselves
in the boundless breath
of morning,

yielding to the burnished metaphors
cherished by common people,
the fresh magic
of the incipient day.

It is a kind of joy
mocking formulas and rites,
undusted ledgers on slate desks,
the joy of unsealed eyes
confronted with unparalleled

a world hushed to inaudibility
in spite of soft beginnings,
still assuming intent and chance.

It is these paper-thin images
that breast the stern face
of the full-grown day
with its sharded rainbows,
spilling meaning
on the meaningless.

These images
straying out of dreams
are the prelude to hope,
cracking possibility
in spite of this and that.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Chess Column: Frank Marshall

Albert Frank Headshot by Albert Frank

Frank Marshall What was the greatest game ever played? The greatest player who ever lived? These questions can always provoke endless debate, and there will never be a final answer.

Another question is: What was the greatest move ever played? There are about 20 candidates. I'll present one of them here.

Frank Marshall, USA champion from 1909 to 1936, made one move that knocked spectators for a loop. According to a legend, they promptly expressed their delight by showering the board with gold coins. For sure, the final position can be compared to any artistic composition. Chess is an art form!

"The simple beauty of the decisive move is its penetration to the hostile King in a quiet way, without fanfare or fury," said Al Horowitz.

One of only three native American men to play a match for the World Championship, Frank Marshall's lengthy chess career had an impact on the development of chess in the United States that few others can match.

Born on the west side of Manhattan on August 10, 1877, Marshall's family moved to Montreal, where he learned to play chess. He won the Montreal Chess Club Championship at age 17, and subsequently moved back to New York.

Marshall's chess achievements are many. Here is a sample:

  • He won seven international tournaments without losing a game.

  • He held the U.S. title for twenty-nine years, resigning the title in 1936 to facilitate the organization of a championship tournament.

  • His performance against an elite field at Petersburg led to his being one of the first five players formally honored with the title Grandmaster in 1914.

  • He was a notoriously inconsistent player, capable of reaching the peaks of greatness, such as first place finishes ahead of Lasker (Cambridge Springs 1904) and Capablanca (Havana 1913) when both men were in their prime, while on the other hand he was also capable of losing matches by lopsided scores to both Lasker (0 "“ 8 with 7 draws in 1908 World Championship match) and Capablanca (1 "“ 8 with 14 draws in 1909).

  • The Marshall Chess Club he founded in 1915 in the back room of a mid Manhattan restaurant was a fixture on the New York chess scene for decades, helping develop the cream of America's chess talent, including Fine, Evans, Sherwin, Mednis and Soltis. Robert Fischer used the facility in 1965 to compete by teletype machine in the Havana Memorial tournament.

  • American chess players mourned the passing of a chess legend when Marshall passed away on November 9, 1944. In recognition of his significant contributions to American chess, Frank Marshall was an Inaugural Member of the Chess Hall of Fame.

Now lets see the game against Stepan Levitzky, a Russian master:

Stepan Levitzky — Frank Marshall, Breslau 1912

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 c5 4. Nf3 Nc6 5. exd5 exd5 6. Be2 Nf6 7. O-O Be7 8. Bg5 O-O 9. dxc5 Be6 10. Nd4 Bxc5 11. Nxe6 fxe6 12. Bg4 Qd6 13. Bh3 Rae8 14. Qd2 Bb4

White's position is difficult, Black's threat Ne4 is tremendous.

15. Bxf6 Rxf6 16. Rad1 Qc5 17. Qe2 Bxc3

18. bxc3 Qxc3 19. Rxd5 Nd4 20. Qh5 Ref8

21. Re5 Rh6 22. Qg5 Rxh3 23. Rc5

White's position is very difficult but it seems he has some counterplay …And now comes the incredible:

Qg3!!! See the final position at which White resigned in the figure.

Final chess position

a. 24.hxg3 …Ne2 mate.

b. 24.fxg3…Ne2. 25.Kh1 Rxf1 mate.

c. 24.Qxg3 Ne2 25.Kh1 Nxg3 26.Kg1 Ne2 27.Kh1 Ra3 28.Re5 Nd4 (or 28.Re1 Rxa2) and black is a knight up for nothing.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

Four Films

Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz

Last year in Marienbad

Someone recently sent me a letter about the vagueness of Resnais' notorious film. A man and a woman stand together in a garden. They discuss whether they have met before, last year, in the Austrian spa at Marienbad. Their memories are inconsistent. So, too, is the setting: Shadows shift in a way only possible in a planet with two suns.

The film has always made sense to me. It is existential (although the author of the screenplay, Alain Robbe Grillet, was a member of the nouveau roman group which, in its objectivity, was in effect anti-existential). The characters, at the end, say, in effect, "We know our memories may be an illusion. We know this world is an illusion (because the sets change in ways inconsistent with reality). We know we ourselves may not exist. However, we resolve to love each other." And, because they have made this resolution...they exist.

Existential...and also romantic. Dante would have agreed: "L'amor che muove il sole e l'altre stelle." — Paradiso Canto 33

The Five Obstructions — recent Danish film

Quite a few years ago, a Danish director named Jorgen Leth made a film called The Perfect Human. The title is sarcastic. It is surreal, dadaist (think Chien Andalou, Bunuel's famous film). In front of a brilliant white background, a dour man dressed in a dinner jacket sits in front of a feast. Glum-faced, he slowly eats, as the narrator says, "This is the perfect man. The perfect man must eat. What is the perfect man thinking of?" There are many scenes like these. And now, Lars von Trier, director of world fame, finds Leth and has him make 5 films remaking The Perfect Man, each with a set of rules, or obstructions. The first must be made using shots each no more than 12 frames long! It must be filmed in Cuba. It must have no sets. The second must be filmed in the most miserable place. It must star Jorn himself. So we see Jorn glumly wolfing a feast in a rancid Bombay slum.

It all seems pointless, but slowly something emerges. It seems that Jorn has become too depressed to film, and Lars is using this as a way to lead him back to film, a kind of therapy. The fifth film, which may or may not plumb the psyche of both directors, is very ambiguous so I don't know if it works.

Time Out, a film by Laurence Cantet

The first thing you see is a man in a car. He is driving on the French equivalent of an interstate. He sees a train pass, and he watches faces in the windows. He looks content. He drives around, stopping at rest areas, watching anonymous drivers buying things in the convenience store. He drives some more, stops at an outdoor area with picnic tables, watches families taking a rest break. He picks up cell phone, phones his wife, "Yes, the meeting went very well, my ideas were well received, but I have a lot of work and will be home late" He comes home late, talks to his kids about their schooldays, offers constructive advice about their problems.

And in future days, more driving, always the most anonymous interstates and rest stops, sometimes he walks through the woods by the side of the highway. He never talks to anyone, just watches. Home each night, more elaborate lies about how he has a great new job, etc.. There are a lot of plot complications, he knows his bubble will burst and resorts to the most elaborate subterfuges to give himself a little extra time, his wife and parents always want to talk, intrude on his space, control him...and he needs to escape...

He is not like me. I don't have the slightest empathy for him. He is the opposite of me. But I loved the film...

The film is called "Time Out". The director is Laurence Cantet. His first film, Human Resources, was about a big factory and how it dehumanizes both workers and managers. Maybe this is a sequel, how one worker escapes. It's like a darker version of that wonderful French film from 1930, A Nous la Liberte.


A few years ago, I was enthralled by Doug Liman's second film, "Go", and its convoluted, time-shifting plot. People told me that his first movie, "Swingers", was better. I finally saw it last night and they might have been right.

On its surface, "Swingers" is the usual story of a bunch of 20somethings kicking around Los Angeles. It's a lot like Fellini's "I Vitelloni", or Barry Levinson's "Diner", for that matter. But the photography -- done by Liman himself -- is excellent. So is the music, which often references other films, other epochs and thus makes a subliminal comment on the action.

At one point, several of the characters discuss their favorite camera shots in film. The nightclub shot using a steadicam in "Goodfellas" is mentioned, and so is an early shot in Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs". Then the characters leave, and the camera duplicates that "Reservoir Dogs" shot. Later I realized that Scorsese's (and veteran German cinematographer Ballhaus') shot from "Goodfellas" was also duplicated. And it suddenly struck me, as indeed it was meant to, that these characters — their self-image, their posturing, and the bonds between them — were a lot like the gangsters in those two movies. Indeed, the strong bond between the men in Swingers was the most appealing feature of the film.


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Prophet of Gloom

Charmaine Frost headshot by Charmaine Frost

Cyborg Angel Craft "They used to lynch weathermen; I know that." Bob snapped. "I've only heard that a thousand times." Bob watched as Will, his on-air partner, pressed the adhesive edges of his synthetic white beard against his jaw, adjusting each side for perfect symmetry before the glue cured; peering solemnly over wire-rimmed bifocals, in his new beard and wig made from iridescent microfilaments, Will resembled a snow-dusted sorcerer even in the patchily lit dressing room.

"Bob", Will declared sternly, "You perform well in front of the camera. But every time I see you back-stage, you're pacing, biting your nails, and moaning about something."

"Yeah. Sure. I know." As one of the station's two leading weathermen, Bob had to seem part wizard, part scientist, part seasoned outdoor explorer; his TV public expected him to brave the elements wielding a gilded barometer and squinting through jewel studded binoculars at omens scrawled in mist across the underbellies of clouds. After so many years on the job, he could don his costume, hunch his back, pull his brow into a concerned omniscient frown, and intone his lines automatically; recently, however, he'd spent too much time grumbling to Will, his weatherman partner.

"I know all about our history," Bob rubbed his palm repetitively up and down the armrest; underneath, the fabric shimmered, scuffed smooth, shiny and pale. Bunch of incompetents!, the public had shouted in protest against weathermen: All that fancy equipment, they'd do as well with divining rods and crystal balls! Where'd they get their science training? Sue them! No, shoot the frauds! If they're gonna pull a fast one on us, they should pay! "I know how they used to treat us. You're right. We have it good. I should just say my lines and forget. I should remember that these are good times, remember to forget."

Bob scratched spasmodically at his uncombed, slightly matted beard as stiff and gray as a brillo pad. Ever since his grandmother's death a month earlier, he'd felt more and more irritable; he remembered too much. Whenever he glanced at the regulation polyurethane container in which her ashes were sealed, his stomach twitched in rebellion; he felt like vomiting up everything he'd eaten and heard during the last twenty-five years. When he tried to sleep, his heart beat out thunderous warnings and the muscles in his legs writhed, trying to squeeze out invisible toxins; something primordial pounded at his skull and hammered in the dark emptiness behind his eyes. He told himself that he was merely grieving for his grandmother, the only person who'd excited his imagination in a world scrubbed clean of spontaneity. He reminded himself that his grandmother and her stories had come from an archaic time, best forgotten, before scientific regulation had freed the world from fear and inconvenient surprises.

Before scientists had learned to control the weather, people expected perfect predictions from their meteorologists. If the forecast read "blizzard", people stockpiled groceries and Aspirin for the backaches that followed shoveling; if the forecast read "sunny", people anticipated feeling happy. When drivers, surprised by an ice storm, crashed their cars, everyone blamed the weathermen. After an unforeseen tornado toppled the main street of a mid-western capitol, multi-million dollar settlements didn't calm the public outrage; the assassin of a meteorologist was pardoned on the grounds of justifiable homicide. After a hurricane veered abruptly off course, crashing historic landmarks and burying a coastal city under toxic silt, members of the underground organization Cloudsmart bombed hundreds of weather stations. The time had come for science to tame nature.

Now, rain fell only between midnight and 6 AM. No more than a half-inch of snow, guaranteed to melt in hours, ever fell. Occasionally, the government staged a midday thunderstorm or a blizzard "just like in the good ole days" to stimulate the citizens with a show of environmental novelty; the people were warned a week in advance. Children read about tornadoes and tidal waves in history books and marveled at the hardships endured by primitive society.

Bob had gleaned his own knowledge about the weather of ancient times from history books, reprinted photographs, old videos, and tales told by his grandmother, who'd lived through subzero chills and soil parching heat during childhood. As Bob dressed for his show, where he and Will would tell the nation what sort of weather the government had planned for its citizens, he thought of Grandmother's mementoes, a lifetime of accumulated photos, letters, e-mail print-outs and news clippings saved in musty boxes now stacked in Bob's apartment. Since her death, he'd spent hours daily examining the artifacts of her life, squinting at yellowed scrawl and faded type on paper dried to parchment brittleness and studying the figures in tea-stained photographs speckled with basement mold.

One photo, of his grandmother as a young woman with head thrown back, drinking rain through her open mouth while shimmering silver curtains poured from her outstretched arms, stood out; Bob had tacked it centrally above his bed.

"For a while, I wanted to be a storm-chaser, wanted to woo nature," Grandmother had told him. "I was a child of the elements."

In the hot, moist wind, I'd stand outside among the thrashing trees, abandoning myself to the power and willfulness of the air. Bob knew the story by heart, recounted and embellished in so many of Grandma's electronic letters. When I went storm-dancing, I wore a long wide skirt that whipped in the gusts until welts rose on my legs. I drank in the energy of the frantic electrified air, the rain surging down like an angry mob. I was the Storm Dervish, whirling wild and fast as a twister down the water-polished streets as the rain drummed, thunder clanged, and the wind sang soprano death-scene arias. Damned if I was going to carry a purse when I went storm dancing; I spent a night in the town jail when the cops found me, spinning down a deserted street while lightning lashed the sky, without ID and unable to prove that I wasn't high or crazy. That was my last storm dance - in 2002. I mourn that part of my life, but it's not something I could do anymore, even if the weather still was a beast calling to other beasts; one has to be young, free and fearless to surrender to the poetry of wildness.

Will slid into his usual seat next to Bob. "Yeah, I'm glad I didn't work in this field back then," He pulled a towel around his shoulders, ready for the technician to apply his make-up. "Nowadays, we don't have to worry about insane crowds. We don't have to predict anything."

Bob winced. "Back then, we would have been doomed prophets. Now we're just actors". His grandmother had known theatrical skies and operatic winds. "But I wonder how it feels to experience something more unexpected than a stubbed toe."

In this time when even nature had been cured of orneriness, news anchors reported global peace, family harmony, affluence throughout the nation, and empty prisons. According to one rumor, however, the long peace was a fiction, invented after the anti-war protests of 2032 had raged to near revolution; a few reportedly had glimpsed secret footage of American infantry charging into a charred jungle during an ongoing, decade-long African war. Some speculated that the president was a holographic image, and that a secret faceless group ruled the country; others argued that the president avoided public appearances, preferring videotaped speeches even during the campaign, due to a history of frequent assassination attempts. TV reporters merely read from teletype, never leaving the studio; journalists fleshed out computer data sent from the official news bureau. Most people clung to the hope that officials and experts wouldn't lie and that they could trust in the continuing calmness of the world.

"Huh? What's that about stubbed toes?"

"Nothing," Bob grunted, as Tina, the make-up technician with spiked fluorescent hair tugged his beard into place. Her Jingle-Band bracelet tinkled a melody from one of the day's top-ten hits whenever it slid up or down her arm. At Tina's squawked command, the chair hummed and angled Bob's face upward; Tina draped a protective white bib over Bob's costume, then muted her Jingle-Band bracelet so that they could all hear the big television that murmured, bleated and squealed above the make-up counter.

"Aren't you the lucky one!" Tina's fingers fluttered over cotton wads and jars of pigment; the stars etched into her long nails glowed, screaming yellow and shrieking orange against a shy pink background. "I can't think of a better show to watch while you're getting pampered. It's my daughter's favorite show, and mine, and my sister's, and even my husband's; we all try to sneak a look, even if that means telling the boss we're sick and have to spend extra long in the ladies' room. But you must know how it is, being a TV guy yourself. When something extra-exciting's calling to you, how can you say "'no'?"

The dressing room's large set played continuously, always showing the station's current broadcast. Most other performers envied the weathermen. The program airing just before their studio appearance ranked as television's most popular; many said that Bob and Will, watching the day's most exciting show from reclining chairs while nimble fingers massaged pigment into their cheeks, were the luckiest of men.

Trapped between the chair and Tina's roving hands, Bob stared at the big screen.

"Welcome to Psycho-Moms From Hell!" On screen, the show's host swaggered across the stage in his sequined jacket while horns blasted to a crescendo in the background. "Which psycho-Moms will make it into the pit? And which one will make it out, as a challenger for the fifty-million-dollar prize? Remember, only one of the chosen will survive to become the star. So, girls and boys, tell the audience why your Moms are nuts enough for the mega-million dollar Psycho-Mom of the Month award."

Bob gulped back the burning fluid that lurched up from his stomach and seared his throat.

"My Mom dresses like a tramp," the first teenage girl squealed. "She wears earrings that dangle all the way to her shoulder, eight on each ear; you can hear her coming from a block away, like she's wearing cow bells. She uses fluorescent orange eye shadow. And when she walks through the mall, she lets one tattooed breast hang out of her blouse, so all the passing guys stare at the snakes feeding from her nipple. From the way she dresses, you'd think she was my age"

Will snorted. "Hooters from Hell! All the tit men wanting to grab a feel and not paying any attention to the daugther - wanna bet the kid's just jealous?"

"My Mom won't let Robo-Maid in her room to clean," the second teenager batted large green eyes at the camera. "She says she doesn't want anyone invading her privacy, even a machine. So her clothes are all over the floor, stacked five feet high. She can't even find the remote control in all that mess".

In the dressing room, Tina's hand hovered over Bob's face, a moist tan sponge gripped between thumb and forefinger. "I sure hope my husband's watching this, him always calling me a slob" she tittered. "What they should do — what would be really exciting — they should sell tickets to see these Nut Cases up close and personal. Meet the belle of the bells, and listen to her tinkle as we chase her. Or visit this privacy-freak's nut house in Fruitcake City, and watch her try to keep Robo-Maid from doing its job. You couldn't stop my Robo-Maid from cleaning unless you took a hammer to her instrument panel; they're made to be persistent, isn't that a fact?" Bob nodded and shut his eyes, trying to recall his grandmother's words and photos from that other time.

"No, keep those eyes open, I need them big and wide to get the shading and wrinkles just right," Tina clucked. Bob cleared his throat, gulped, and stared obediently ahead. In front of him, on the glaring screen, the show's host strutted to another fidgety teenager.

"Purty crazy!" the announcer crooned. "And let's hear about Mom number three"

"My Mom keeps hundreds of pet roaches." The girl spat a wad of purple gum into a tissue and tossed back her blond hair. "She has them all in little cages. They all have their own names; she's even painted designs on some of their backs. The one called 'Sunflower', has a big acrylic sunflower painted on it; there's 'Lilac' and 'Violet' and 'Dandy Lion'; she swears they all have different personalities. She's trying to train them to roll over, and the meaner ones to do guard duty, attack a robber when she shouts 'Sic him, Rover Roachy, sic him!' It wouldn't be so bad if she didn't like to eat with her favorites; she coos to Sunflower and Violet over a bowl of spaghetti, then claps when they perch near her coffee cup and wave their antennae at her. I even wrote a poem about it, you wanna hear?"

"Do we want to hear it?" the host asked the audience.

"Yes!," the audience cheered.

"Are we sure we want to hear it?"

"Yes, yes, yes!" the audience screamed.

"O.K., it' s called 'Roachy'," the girl cleared her throat as she unfolded a piece of paper, "And goes:

Attach a leash to your roach,

Strut proudly in the lead.

When critics gawk and reproach,

Say "He's an exotic breed,

Sired specially and pedigreed",

Say "My roach is not an 'it' - a 'he',

And he's very cheap to feed.

So I pamper him with luxury -

A hotel where he and wife can breed."

"Purty crazy!" the host boomed. "So, audience, which will it be, Mom number one, Mom number two or Mom number three? Will it be the scamp of a tramp, the robo-phobe or wretched roachy?"

"Three! three! three!", the audience shouted.

"Who?", the host bellowed.

"Roachy! Roachy!" The audience chanted, clapped, and stomped its feet.

In the adjacent chair, Will coughed. "For my mother, a roach was Public Enemy Number One. She'd have shot them if she owned a gun, but she had to crush them; then she handed us kids paper towels and ordered us to wipe up the pieces of shell and the oozing bug juice. Didn't want to touch even the tip of a roach leg - but that's normal." Will snickered. "Those roaches must have crawled into this lady's brain. Watching her in the pit — you can't beat that for excitement, can you?"

Bob grunted. "Manufactured excitement," he sneered inwardly. When his grandmother was young, the world had seemed like a capricious and willful creature that frightened and exhilarated humans with the whims of its weather and its politicians; people sometimes trembled, but they knew that something unpredictable would jolt them awake after a period of too much calm. Adrenaline junkies, people needed a frequent adrenaline fix. Possibly, the need was coded in our genes; in a world of constant, predictable calm, people hungered for the unexpected; yesterday's surprise no longer shocked them awake and they needed the increasingly loud and putrid to arouse their sleeping senses. "Today, when the wind must call on schedule", he seethed, "We create artificial excitement".

As Tina rubbed fragrant, calming oils into Bob's neck, he squeezed his eyes shut against the roiling images on screen. The applause of the studio audience softened into the thrumming of ancient, wayward winds: The wind pranced up a roof and somersaulted down. The field was its trampoline and tree branches its jungle gym. It shook confetti leaves loose; they spun up, then tumbled to ground, scribbling the field with streaks of paintbox red and crayola yellow. Grandma, pictured as a little girl in another snap shot, pranced out in her little-girl shoes, to play tag with the cartwheeling wind; she dashed to the crabapple tree, her very own juggle-ball tree, with its thousand dangling round purple fruits that the wind might have hurled into the forever-blue sky if only it hadn't impulsively decided to play elsewhere. Bob recalled that photo of a five year old Grandma, her dress billowing and hair swirling, more vividly than he recalled any moments from his own life.

"Come on, be a dear and open those gorgeous eyes for me so I can do your face right," Tina cawed. As she pried open his lids with her raucously painted talons, Bob's gut writhed and his foot shook spasmodically.

"Roachy, Roachy!" The shouts stabbed Bob like surges of high voltage current.

"O.K., bring her out!" A squat, orange haired woman in a purple caftan waddled forth. Her name and story had been submitted to the networks months before; she'd already passed three screening auditions testing that her personality, as well as her psychosis, would excite viewers. She raised her plump fists victoriously over her head, shook them in time to the chanting, then sat grinning in the seat beside her daughter.

"O.K., Mizzz Ruthy Roachy, you're Psycho-Mom of the day; you've won a chance in the pit." The host's voice deepened to a growl. "But can you scratch, claw and beat your way out of the pit, to that five-million dollar prize in the sky? Let's look at your competition."

A gaunt face with lava hair and midnight-dark eyes scowled on screen. The audience hissed.

"That's last week's champion Psycho-Mama, Ms. Mean of Green, mass murderer of trees. She's got a vendetta against oaks, hacked down a yard of 200 year old trees with a rusty axe, even though her robo-gardener would take care of any pruning and raking; now her yard's full of knee-high stumps. And when the government staged that snowfall last winter, she tried to shovel it off her driveway with a kitchen spatula, even though everyone knew the white stuff would be melted in a day. She may look small but she's tough; so far, she's beaten four Psycho-Moms into dust. Ten-in-a-row and she's a megabucks, mucho moolah, millionaire Mama, even if she quits and doesn't go for higher stakes. So, Mizzz Ruthy Roachy, can you beat the Lean Meany of the Green to the prize?"

"Roachy! Roachy!", the audience hollered.

"Roachy! Roachy!", Tina and the other make-up technician cheered.

Bob clenched the armrests with his fists until the straining knuckles burned with the white of hot steel. "What kind of a world is this?" he spat into his beard, then clamped his lips shut.

On screen, spikes of neon-red hair stuck out from a crimson face; the wide eyes, hot as embers, burned furiously. The audience booed.

"That's Dame Dread of Red, who'll also meet you in the pit. Her favorite colors are fire-engine red and black. When she moved into her house, she bought a hundred gallons of paint; now the walls and stairs are hot red, while the ceiling, carpet and electrical outlets are black. She yanked out all the original plumbing, installed a red tub and black toilet. She drives a red car with black seats and only wears black dresses with red shoes. She sits under a sun lamp all day, to keep a fiery burned complexion; 'Better dead than not red', she tells dermatologists when they warn her about skin cancer. Can you beat Red and Ready in the psycho-pit?"

"Roachy! Roachy!", the audience screeched. "You can do it, go Roachy!"

"You can do it!" Will cheered. "Go Roachy!"

"Roachy! Roachy!", the make-up technicians chanted.

Bob wiped the sweat from his neck with jerky staccato rubs as an inner fire seared his skin. "What kind of a world is this?" he growled. "What kind of a world is so desperate for thrills?"

On television, the stocky woman rose from her chair, raised her fists and flung back her head.

"I can do it! I'll scratch them till they bleed, punch them till they drop, kick them when they're down and out till no more juice is in them. I can do it; I'm Psycho-queen!"

The losers would die in the pit, beaten to death by the other contestants; usually, the victorious Psycho-Mom emerged with broken bones, bruised organs and scars, but famous, five million dollars richer and a contender for the fifty-million dollar prize.

The audience roared.

"Roachy! Roachy!" In homes and offices across the nation, housewives and break-time employees cheered and booed. Tina hissed, then hurled a moist sponge at the screen; the other make-up specialist stomped her foot and chanted. Will bolted upright, shaking his fists. Every face purpled; bulging neck arteries throbbed, pulsing hot with anger or triumph as the championed Psycho-Mom, who seemed more real than the viewer's own biological mother, punched, kicked and clawed for blood in the celebrity arena.

Bob, the only one still seated, gaped at the screen and gasped for breath. Two women would die in the pit; one would emerge, battered, rich, today's celebrity cheered for the moments of excitement she'd given to a dulled audience. Was this what happened when everyday life became artificially predictable, routine and comfortable, sapped of any suspense?

"You're on in three minutes, " an intercom voice bleated over the buzzing commercials. Both weathermen reached for their floor length capes of gold and silver, studded with rhinestone stars and moons, and fastened these over cobalt blue shirts and trousers. Each lifted a pearly wand from the stand.

Bob rubbed his wand carefully, then leaned against the door. "I wish I could do something different tonight," he mumbled, staring at the floor. "Like forecast a blizzard for tomorrow."

"A what?" Will glared at his companion. "You know that they've planned sunshine for the next month. So why would you defy the script? People would panic if they thought the weather wasn't going according to plan. And what about tomorrow, when it's sunny all day? You'd probably lose your job. Everything would be in chaos. People wouldn't know whether or not to trust the weather bureau."

Bob frowned, then sighed loudly. "Don't you ever get bored just reading scripts the officials hand you? Don't you ever want a little excitement, something unpredictable?"

"Maybe," Will protested. "But this is a good job. All we have to do is wear these capes, read lines someone else writes, and look serious, the way people imagine sorcerers would look. If I want excitement, I can turn to Psycho Mom. But not in real life; I don't want surprises in my real life."

"Showtime in sixty seconds," the intercom rasped.

The weathermen ambled down the corridor, each stroking his beard to a point to resemble that worn by a fairy tale magician.

Suddenly, Bob stopped, beating his wand against the floor like a cane. "I do! I want surprises. And maybe I'm not the only one." He straightened his back until he seemed as tall and indestructible as a lightning rod; the glittering tip of his wizard's cap seemed ready to scratch the sky. "People know that the weather's government controlled. But, maybe, some of them still want to see us as forecasters in a universe full of mystery. They want to believe in the possibility of excitement. They want to anticipate, want to wake up to more than programmed days of comfortable monotony. Maybe they want to know that some can hear divine music in a way unexplained by genetics and evolution; they need prophets and the unpredictable."

"You were born centuries too late," Will chuckled.

"Computers are always right; they're programmed to be." Bob insisted. "If they're not, there's something wrong with the software. You know what distinguishes the prophet, or any human, from the machine?" Bob stared past his partner, at something encoded in the crystalline air. "He's sometimes wrong."

Will shook his head. "A medieval monastery, that's where you belong."

"Beauty and magic require randomness. And prophets have immense power." Bob's dark eyes burned, embers untouchably hot with passion, under his frosted false eyebrows.

"For evil, maybe," Will spat out.

"Could be, " Bob clutched his wand to his chest; his fist gleamed like a tiny moon against the swirling nebulae stitched in his cloak of flaming violet. "But I want to see what it's like to be a prophet of gloom. Tomorrow there will be a blizzard…."

ancient mouth city