Sunday, July 25, 2021

Hunting

When I was very little, maybe four or five years old, my mom and my aunt took my cousin and I to a natural history museum. I don't remember very much about the experience, except that the day's grand finale was the chance to apply what we'd learned about fossils and conduct a dig of our own.

My long-suffering
plaster trilobite
This "dig" took place in a sandbox. Our tools were plastic shovels and colanders, and the fossils turned out to be identical plaster copies of the same trilobite. Every kid who participated got one to keep, and I'm sure the second we left the staff got to burying more for the next group to find. The entire experience was about as spontaneous and unpredictable as a trip to the petting zoo.

And yet I still vividly remember finding those trilobites. My cousin and I both still have them (although he's managed to keep his in pristine condition, while mine has been broken and super glued and is now missing a piece of its back. You could take that fact and draw some conclusions about the ways that we're different, and you probably wouldn't be wrong).

I'm still not sure why that day made such a big impression on us. While I can't speak for my cousin, I can say that I've been fascinated by fossils and paleontology ever since. Trilobites in particular hold a certain allure--I've always wanted to find a real, complete trilobite fossil to match the plaster one I've carried for years.

That was my goal this weekend, then, when the Indiana Society of Paleontology resumed hosting field trips after a hiatus for COVID-19. I put on my steel-toed boots, packed up a hammer and hard hat, and drove out I-74 to meet the gang at the quarry.

The St. Paul Quarry

As fossil sites go, quarries have their pros and cons, but there's obviously a huge advantage to the fact that someone else has done the deep digging. The St. Paul quarry seemed especially promising, since it would likely have older stones by virtue of being in the southeastern part of the state.

This particular site was also loaded with shale. Shale's a fun stone to excavate because of the satisfying way that it splits. Each time you crack a stone in half it feels a little like playing the lottery. Mostly you get nothing, but once in a while you find a real gem.

Splitting a stone
with my trusty (and rusty) hammer

Although we visited the quarry over a weekend, when most of the workers were gone, there was still some heavy machinery moving down in the pit, and we were warned to stay up top for our safety. 

While it's nice not to get flattened by excavators, the drawback was that we were left at the mercy of whatever rocks had been dumped, higgeldy-piggeldy, around the top of the pit. If you found something promising, there was no guarantee there'd be anything else like it in the immediate area. Even so, it wasn't long before I found big chunks of fossilized seabed with a bounty of shells and corral.

Ancient seabed

What looks like rough stone at first turns out, at a closer glance, to be chock full of bivalves and brachiopods. By now I've learned to spot these fossils at a distance pretty quickly, but it took some practice to get very familiar. Having never spotted a trilobite before, I wondered if I would even recognize one if I actually saw it.

A growing crystal of pyrite

While scouring the stones, I found was a whole slew of brachiopods growing pyrite crystals (fool's gold) around their shells. I'd never seen this before, but apparently it isn't uncommon, especially in shale. By the time I was done I'd collected several more samples of pyrite, both growing on fossils and all on its own. Not quite what I was looking for, but a fun find nonetheless.

A tale of two tails

Then, finally, toward the end of the dig: a pair of trilobite tails. As it turns out, carrying a plaster cast of a fossil for thirty years is a pretty good way to burn its appearance into your brain. As soon as I saw that striated, three-column structure, I knew what I had.

While it would have been fun to find a complete fossil, this wasn't too bad for a morning's hunt. It's also good practice. On each excavation I seem to make my finds quicker, and get a better sense of how to find what I'm after. I just need a little more practice, and a little more luck.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

A Gift for Dialogue

I've been reading William Boyle's novel, “A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself,” and it's been a joy from start to finish. Comic crime is my sweet spot, and when it's done well there's not much I like better.

One of the things I love about Boyle's writing is how quickly he establishes character and motivation through dialogue. Right away in this novel we get an interaction between a pair of main players that will define who they are through the rest of the book: Rena, a mob widow trying to reconnect with her daughter, and Enzio, her horny octogenarian neighbor.

When Enzio comes nosing around, Rena's ready to give him the boot. But her own loneliness gives her some pause, which is all the opportunity Enzio needs to keep trying, even after Rena points out his notorious unfaithfulness.

Past is past, you know? The way I behaved was in direct correlation to Maria forsaking her wifely duties. The marital bed was cold. Ice-cold. And a man gets heated up. Besides, who we kidding over here? I got one foot in the grave. I'm trying to find someone for company. A nice dinner at Vincenzo's. Maybe a movie.” He pauses, looks around. “You gonna offer me anything?”

What do you want?”

Coffee? Maybe a cookie.”

I've got instant coffee and Entenmann's.”

That's no way to live.”

 

The dialogue here is funny, but look at what it tells us about Enzio's character. Everything he says in this brief passage is about his own appetites. Appetite for sex, entertainment, companionship, food—for Enzio, satiation in the only thing that really matters. He even imagines this is somehow a good defense for his own infidelities. Because he's so consumed by these appetites, he imagines everyone else must be too.

Rena is not, however, so she isn't impressed with anything Enzio's saying. He tries to tempt her with a neighbor's homemade wine, but even that doesn't work. He's baffled. 

You're a tough nut,” he says. “You don't want any companionship? I'm just trying to be a nice guy here.”

Okay, okay,” Rena says.

Okay? What's okay got to do with it? I'm lonely. You're not lonely? We could be lonely together. Watch a movie. Drink some wine. Eat some cookies.”

Enough with the wine and cookies.”

A goddamn tough nut.” He sits down across from her. “You want me to leave?”

I don't care what you do.”

I'm not leaving unless you come with me, how's that?” He laces his fingers together and cracks his knuckles. It's loud, a tiny thundering, like stepping on Bubble Wrap. “Maybe I'll tell you a story? That's what I'll do.”

 

The story Enzio tells is about a guy named Eddie, who narrowly avoids being killed by two Russian mobsters after he laughs just as they're about to execute him. His laughter provokes the Russians' paranoia, and they end up killing each other instead of the fortunate Eddie. 

The story is so ridiculous, so stupid, that when it's over Rena's left standing there, gobsmacked.

What's the point of that story?” Rena asks.

Laugh a little, that's what.”

And she does laugh. Russian mobsters shooting each other like that. Jesus, Mary, and Saint Joseph. What a tale.

There you go,” Enzio says. “You've got a nice laugh. All these years, I've never heard you laugh, you know that?”

She's still laughing. Now she can't stop. She's looking across at Enzio, this old man who just told this ridiculous story, and she's noticing his elbows on the table, his flabby chin, hair under his nose and around his ears that he's also missed shaving, earlobes that dangle like melted coins, a little burst of blood vessels on his forehead.

Okay, okay,” Enzio says.

I'm sorry,” she says, trying to catch her breath. “I can't stop. I'm gonna pee my pants.”

Don't piss your pants.”

I can't—”

Christ, what's so funny?”

She gasps. Tries to settle herself. Her laughter finally sputters to a stop. “Sorry. Just the whole thing.” She waves her hands in front of her as if swatting away gnats. “I'm done, I swear.”

You're laughing at me?” Enzio says.

Not at all,” Rena says.

I'm no fool.”

I know. I mean, you wanted me to laugh, right?”

Not like that.”

She gets up. “I need some water. You want some water?”

I don't like water.”

 

There's a lot happening in this brief little passage, mostly to Rena. Enzio was an irritation before, but now she recognizes how pathetic he is. After he's told her the story, it literally changes how she sees him. She begins looking more closely, noticing each pitiful detail, all of which make her laugh even harder. Crucially, Rena begins to let down her guard.

Enzio goes through a change here as well. For the first time since his introduction, we see him moved beyond his own appetites. He may not see himself as clearly as Rena does, but her laughter is enough to make him aware that she finds him ridiculous. Suddenly this man of endless appetite won't even accept a glass of water.

Finally, there's one other thing I want to point out in this passage, and it's a nice, subtle detail. Rena says “pee.” Enzio says “piss.” It's a small difference of word choice, but its there doing work, reinforcing their characterizations.

Rena goes over to the sink and runs the tap, passing her hand through the stream to make sure it's cold enough. She takes a glass from the dish drain, fills it, and slurps down the water, her back to Enzio. “You're mad?” she asks. She doesn't particularly care if he is—he's just a neighbor to her anyway—but she feels bad for laughing at him. She feels bad he knows she was laughing at him. She wishes [her husband] was still alive for a lot of reasons, but mostly, right now, so she wouldn't have to deal with Enzio.

I'm fine,” he says, picking at his ear.

She runs more water into her glass and downs it. “I'll come with you to your house,” she says, and she's not even sure why she says it. Maybe she knows it's the only way the tension will die.

Yeah? Wine and cookies?”

One glass. Maybe a cookie.”

Enzio claps his hands together. “That's a start.”

Rena places her glass in the sink slowly, hoping if she takes long enough Enzio will go away and she won't have to go with him on this, this … what else to call it but a date?

You won't be sorry,” Enzio says, grabbing his jacket. “I'm a gentleman.”

Famous last words,” Rena says.

 

Here's where the internal change in Rena leads to an external action. Seeing how pathetic Enzio is makes her soften just enough to agree to go to his home. (And, of course, what's the first thing Enzio thinks of when he hears her decision? Those damned cookies and wine.) Even as they're preparing to leave Rena's house, you can sense the power dynamic is shifting again. It's this back and forth that fuels the opening chapter, and ultimately leads to the actions that kick off the novel.

It's a really nice bit of characterization in a novel that's full of examples like this. If you want to learn how to write good dialogue that moves the action forward, Boyle's one hell of a teacher.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Consolations


Philosophy consoles Boethius
"Listen Boethius, I know they're about to kill you,
but could you please pay attention?"

Boethius doesn't get read much anymore, but he used to be a bigger part of the canon. JRR Tolkien, for instance, read and was influenced by Boethius's book The Consolation of Philosophy. (There's even a hint of that influence in The Lord of the Rings, according to Dr. John Bowers, who draws a parallel between Lady Galadriel and Philosophy, embodied in Boethius's work as a woman clothed in “imperishable material, of the finest thread woven with the most delicate skill.”)

I sort of stumbled over Boethius by accident while I was reading somebody else. What really caught my attention was the origin of Consolation, which was written while Boethius sat in prison awaiting his gruesome execution. After being accused of conspiring against his king, Boethius was put to death by having his head bound in wet straps of leather. The straps, tightening as they dried, slowly crushed Boethius's skull until death.

(This, at least, is the version Dr. Bowers relates. Other sources are not quite as creative or gory, though no one disputes that he was executed.)

Boethius maintained his innocence until the very end. Taking him at his word, then, The Consolation of Philosophy is the work of a man trying to find his way out of utter despair at the injustice of his fate. While Boethius would not have described himself as a Stoic, it's hard not to see certain parallels. Like the Stoics, Boethius believed that no matter what happened to a person externally, they were still capable of choosing their own thoughts and perspectives. Reason, Consolation argues, is the way an individual can assert that freedom.

Well, listen. I've tried that strategy a few times myself, and let me tell you—it's a real motherfucker to pull off. So I have to give Boethius credit, here. I can't reason myself out of lying awake at 3 a. m. worrying about work, let alone my own pending execution.

I've written before that I'm reading a lot of nonfiction this year. Like a lot of people, I think I'm doing some searching. But one hurdle I haven't had much success getting over is getting out of my own head. When that anxiety hits at 3 in the morning, I don't get too much help from my Reason. If anything, it seems to go haywire—instead of thinking my way into some sense of stability, my brain is usually reasoning itself to the conclusion that, logically, all is lost and everything is hopeless. (My brain may have a point there, I just think it could wait until morning.)

But as I've been reading, I've found something else, a common thread that runs through some surprisingly varied places. When Seth Godin, the Stoics, and recovery literature all agree on something, I feel like it's worth a second look.


If you want to change your story, change your actions first. When we choose to act a certain way, our mind can't help but rework our narrative to make those actions become coherent. We become what we do.”

-Seth Godin, The Practice



First tell yourself what kind of person you want to be, then do what you have to do.”

-Epictetus, Discourses



If we are going to change, we have to let what we know dictate how we act. An unrecognized, unexamined, unacceptable feeling is a madman in the driver's seat. And if we don't take a good hard look at that fact, at the habit system that's in place, we don't have a chance at changing.”

-Earnie Larsen, Stage II Recovery


In other words, what all this reading was telling me was that changing your habits of thought just isn't enough. There has to be action, too. And sometimes—uncomfortably—that action has to precede those changes of thought.

There's a very old, painfully cliché saying in AA that's become very mainstream: "Fake it 'til you make it." And some people will argue very passionately that this is terrible advice, for a whole host of very rational reasons. It's not hard to argue with aphorisms like that. They are, after all, pretty broad—they can't possibly apply to every single situation.

But what's important about this idea isn't that you should just bullshit your way through life and hope this helps you succeed. The real message is that sometimes, especially when you're trying to change, you have to pretend to be a better version of you through your actions until your thoughts can catch up.

Because your brain is a terrific engine of rationalization. If you spend every day picking up litter on your street, eventually your brain will catch on. “I must really care about cleanliness,” your brain will think. “Why else would I do this so often?” And so the action moves into thought, driving itself down toward identity.

Taking concrete, specific actions toward the person you want to be may be the best way to get there. That's why the context of The Consolation of Philosophy is such an important part of the story. Within the book, Boethius is trying to reason his way out of despair. But he could have done that just sitting alone in his cell, talking to himself, and we'd never have known.

But he didn't. Instead, he took action. He wrote down his book, and by doing so I think he created proof for himself that he was not a man who despaired. I believe the consolation he found was not just in the philosophical arguments laid out in the book, but also in the act of creation itself.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

The Canon

A couple years ago, I decided to pull together all of my favorite books. My “personal canon,” you could call it—the novels most meaningful to me, regardless of their reputation at large.

I was doing this more as a writer than a reader. I wanted to study them, to see if, collectively, they might teach me some lessons. What would these books have in common? Why did they resonate so strongly for me? And, if I could tease out some common quality that ran through the whole pile, would it be something I could imitate?

What this exercise revealed was that these books really do shed some light on me as a reader. I like plot. I like character. I like books that are equal parts funny and sad. I gravitate way less toward the “literary” than I would have guessed. For as much as I read, when it comes to the books that take up permanent residence in my head or my heart, the big prize-winners are rarely among them.

But none of this was really surprising. As a reader, I already know I'm a lot more engaged by sharp dialogue than lyrical prose. I tend toward the same in my own writing. My writing is weakest when I drift toward the meditative or the poetic. When it's working the best—or at least, when I'm having the most fun—there's a plot kicking in and the characters are starting to argue.

No, what was most surprising to me was the discovery that there's a pace to how often I find a new favorite. As I laid out the books from end to end, it was like sketching out a quick autobiography. There's me in high school, the daydreamy kid getting lost in Neil Gaiman's urban fantasy Neverwhere. There's me in college, questioning God and discovering Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., right on cue. (Okay, my personal canon is a bit on the nose for certain life stages, but what can you do? There are reasons these things are cliché.)

Yet if these books made up an autobiography, the strange thing is that there was never a gap. There was no stretch of years where I didn't like anything, followed by a year where I loved a whole bunch. With an eerily regular cadence, I seem to find a new favorite book about once every year.

I'm still not sure what to make of that. Does it imply that if I read twice as many books in a year, I'd find twice as many to love? I've been a steady reader most of my life, but I don't think I'm that steady. I must read more books some years and fewer in others. And yet, almost without fail, each year seemed to boil down to one book in particular.

Granted, sometimes the deck was stacked. When I read High Fidelity, it was on the strong recommendation of a friend. Same with My Name is Lucy Barton and The Anthologist. But then what about a book like Nami Mun's Miles From Nowhere? I'd never heard of the book, never heard of the author. That was the entire appeal when I pulled it off the shelf at a Barnes and Noble one afternoon in 2011. I don't know what it was that convinced me to buy it. I liked the cover? I liked the back blurb? Just moved to act on a lark?

One way or another, I did buy a copy, and I fell completely in love. I don't know what else I read that year, or how many books. All I know is that's the one that's still living to me, and the one I keep going back to.

For me, I think, that's the value of the personal canon. It matters not for any one of the reasons mentioned above, but for all of them. These are the books you loved first as a reader, but love even more because, as time goes on, they reconnect you with who you once used to be.

Maybe you can only imbue a book with that kind of power once in a year. Or maybe that pacing is as idiosyncratic to me as the books are themselves. Whatever the case, seeing those books all lined up like the rings of a tree made me look forward to discovering the ones I'll add next.

Either/Or

Lately I've been in the bad habit of not quite finishing books. I get antsy toward the last twenty pages or so, distracted like a fickle...