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Monthly Archives: July 2013

“Your Brain on Fiction”

“Your Brain on Fiction”

“The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.”

As if you needed to know.

Crime and Punishment: thinking through and questioning

Nature is what you find in the pristine world: dirt, soil, seeds that are neither sewn nor selectively bred, minerals, the workings of the animal realms.
Artifice is what man makes, whether that is tool or clothing or custom or law or idea.

Stopping at a red light and going on a green: nature or artifice? A hamburger: nature or artifice? Setting aside a hamburger for a loved one who will be an hour late, and not eating it although we are hungry: nature or artifice?

1.  Raskolnikov’s dream: think of the horse as nature and the people as artifice.
What part of nature or the natural world could the horse symbolize?
What part of man-made laws or ideas could the people represent?
Now that you’ve thought that through, flip it: what law or idea or custom could the horse represent?
What natures or instincts could the people symbolize?

2.  Raskolnikov, early on, thinks the amateurish criminal makes many mistakes, and that he – the superior intellect – won’t.  How does that work out for him?

3. How/why does Raskolnikov think he’s a superior intellect?  (You see how that question is answered as the story unfolds, yes?)

As you are realizing, much of what you thought was foreshadowing is being answered as you read: you can go back and answer, or even reformulate, your questions.

4.  Does Porfiry really suspect Raskolnikov? How R.’s thoughts run around and around trying to figure that out! When did you, the reader, become sure of that? Did you get the “I knew it!” feeling?

5. What is fever? How does it work physically and mentally? What causes it?
Raskolnikov spends considerable time in a feverish state: perhaps an hour reading up of fever might be illuminating?

Another reason to pay attention:


Second class!?



Time to step up my game.



Enough writing, time for some carving.

Journal example

I am working on folding in a “fitness journal” facet of the journal part of my gradebook. This is my answer to the question “What is your motivation in maintaining fitness?”

Running a treadmill indoors. I can understand this if you’re in a location of inclement weather or hostile territory, but other than that…
(If it works for you, well, keep on it.)
A lot of folks burn out on their fitness program because it feels like the psychological treadmill. They give up.

You full-of-piss-and-vinegar youngsters might scoff, but wait until you’ve run miles and miles over days and weeks and years and decades. You’re mid-career. You’ve got kids. You’re dragging at day’s end and the table needs to be set. You’ve slipped up and a few pounds are on. Or ten. Or twenty…

You gonna keep it up? What is your motivation?

At 50, my motivations:

The fitness of the body effects the fitness of the mind and spirit.
That lard you’re consuming chokes your arteries and blood flow.
The brain works on blood flow.
Cut the flow and the thinking suffers; it’s a no-brainer.

I want to be able to trek during retirement – which at present looks like no sooner than age sixty-five.

I need to be here for others.
Several others, at an intimate level, but depending on the day or hour, perhaps thirty, one of whom may be important to you.

I am a teacher, and although my primary mission is instruction of techniques of thinking, I am also the guardian of the physical safety of my charges: in the event of danger, I might need to assume command. To explain:

I work in an area in which there is the belief that living on the “mean streets” – a climate created by espousing that credo and contributing, often unconsciously, to that violence – gives one greater machismo and “credibility” than people raised in safe neighborhoods.
(Note: “machismo” now applies to young women, who are becoming increasingly likely to express femininity through violence, e.g., the title “bitch” becoming an honorific.) It can get pretty tense. A strong presence can stop the escalation.

I also work and live on the Hayward Fault, in a flood zone, and under the glidepath of several airports. Dangers more demanding.

If some nasty grief or drama unfolds, the teacher is the incident commander until the “higher payscale” arrives on scene. Unlikely occurrences, but entirely possible – it only takes once.

My specific training objectives:

To survive a disaster and escape it, if alone.
If in company, to carry out the wounded and be the last man to leave the room.
To run from one casualty to the next, keeping composure and the ability to respond and function.
To maintain this until properly relieved.

Honestly, I hope I’m just running the treadmill: excitement is overrated.

Essay: What is poetry? Pre-writing

First draft thinking. Very simple. Free flowing.
A sort of poetry to essay formulation: pre-exposition poetics.


Prehistory is what happens before there is a decipherable record of events. What happened in prehistory is largely speculative. There can be some education to the guessing, but absent informants who can explain meaning and origin, we are indeed guessing.

We obviously have language and song and poetry and music. But which came first?

To make sound with the body is instinctive: listen to a baby. (Linguists call it vegetative sound or pre babbling.)
At some point this became words.

Precursors to Language (Pre-linguistic)

0-2 months 2-5 months 4-8 months 6-13 months

reflexive crying and vegetative sounds

cooing and laughter

vocal play

– reduplicated
– non-reduplicated

(Symbolic) Language

12-19 months

14-24 months

20-30 months

28-42 months

34-48 months

48-60 months

Early One Word Stage


Later One Word Stage

Two Word Stage

Three Word Stage

Four Word Stage

Complex Utterance Stage

Fold into this that some believe language was informed by other beings:


The ancients observed the animals closely. Sound and movement. The Bobé spirits. The animal styles of martial arts.

Increasingly, we are tool users. The drumstick. I wonder at which came first: the physical rhythm of percussion – say, drumming – or the bodyrhythm that is syllabication?

A lifetime is an evolution of physicalities. See the second sense:

phys•i•cal |ˈfizikəl|
1 of or relating to the body as opposed to the mind : a whole range of physical and mental challenges.
• involving bodily contact or activity : verbal or physical abuse | football and other physical games.
• sexual : a physical relationship.
2 of or relating to things perceived through the senses as opposed to the mind; tangible or concrete : pleasant physical environments | physical assets such as houses or cars.
• of or relating to physics or the operation of natural forces generally : physical laws.
phys•i•ca•li•ty |ˌfiziˈkalitē| noun

ORIGIN late Middle English (in the sense [medicinal, relating to medicine] ): from medieval Latin physicalis, from Latin physica ‘things relating to nature’ (see physic ). Sense 2 dates from the late 16th cent. and sense 1 from the late 18th cent.

You roll. You crawl.  You stumble. You walk. You run, skip. You catch. You dance. You somersault, tumble. You move a ball with others. You “parkour.”

You reach and point. Your body makes noise. You hear, you imitate. Syllables emerge. You form a word and see effect. A phrase, a clause. You speak sentences and say nursery rhymes. (Already the rhythm is woven in to your speaking.) You sing. You master the body into strong, clear song.

I think the root of poetry is woven in very early. It’s not so much a question of which came first as when was it folded in?
(And if you believe that your culture is in your bones, it is a question of when it happened for your people…)

Sound and movement weave together. Rhythms. Physicality.


Where do you put poetry in this list?

It’s like that.


Billy Collins

Glancing over my shoulder at the past,
I realize the number of students I have taught
is enough to populate a small town.

I can see it nestled in a paper landscape,
chalk dust flurrying down in winter,
nights dark as a blackboard.

The population ages but never graduates.
On hot afternoons they sweat the final in the park
and when it’s cold they shiver around stoves
reading disorganized essays out loud.
A bell rings on the hour and everybody zigzags
into the streets with their books.

I forgot all their last names first and their
first names last in alphabetical order.
But the boy who always had his hand up
is an alderman and owns the haberdashery.
The girl who signed her papers in lipstick
leans against the drugstore, smoking,
brushing her hair like a machine.

Their grades are sewn into their clothes
like references to Hawthorne.
The A’s stroll along with other A’s.
The D’s honk whenever they pass another D.

All the creative-writing students recline
on the courthouse lawn and play the lute.
Wherever they go, they form a big circle.

Needless to say, I am the mayor.
I live in the white colonial at Maple and Main.
I rarely leave the house. The car deflates
in the driveway. Vines twirl around the porch swing.

Once in a while a student knocks on the door
with a term paper fifteen years late
or a question about Yeats or double-spacing.
And sometimes one will appear in a windowpane
to watch me lecturing the wallpaper,
quizzing the chandelier, reprimanding the air.

The Discovery of Poetry

The Discovery of Poetry

The google ebook preview of Mayes’ book that is cited in the previous posts.

(You might notice page number citations on my handwritten notes, but I believe the pagination is different in the edition of the class set we use.)