Always One Foot on the Ground

I like the way Nick Hornby writes. I even read a whole novel of his that was narrated by a teenager who has heart-to-hearts with his Tony Hawke poster. Whether speaking through a character or as an impersonal narrative voice, his tone is vernacular, chatty, most at home in the tone of a rueful smartass. His people tend to be losers, more or less, washed-up rock musicians or aging hipsters who have realized that they are starting to blend in with the backwater town they live in instead of standing out in splendid camp irony, or teens whose self-destructive impulses have succeeded beyond their intentions.

So I was happy to see a new Hornby novel on the BGL, even if it wasn’t really new: High Fidelity dates from the mid-‘90s, and having read it, I think his work has improved substantially in the intervening years, not so much in his command of comedy as in his ability to tell a compelling human story.

Our narrator, Rob, is a popular-music nerd (like his creator) who owns a wee record store in London. In one sense, he is proud enough to look down on all those who own Pink Floyd and Kate Bush records instead of Bruce Springsteen and Solomon Burke (no, it doesn’t make sense to me either); in another, he worries that he hasn’t accomplished anything, and at age 35 isn’t a young hipster any more.

And now Laura has dumped him. So we get a capsule history of Rob’s romantic life, beginning with his first gropings with a fellow 12-year-old, followed by his first dumping:


Where had I gone wrong? First night: park, fag, snog. Second night: ditto. Third night: ditto. Fourth night: chucked.

OK, OK, maybe I should have seen the signs—maybe I was asking for it. Round about that second ditto I should have spotted that we were in a rut…

Just to be clear, they’re cigarettes, not gay people he’s referring to. Anyway, it’s a cute reductio ad absurdum of relationship analysis cliches.


Back in real time, Rob goes to a gig to see an American alt-country songstress:

She’s got a couple of records out on an independent label, and once had one of her songs covered by Nanci Griffith. Dick says Marie lives here now; he read somewhere that she finds England more open to the kind of music she makes. Which means presumably that we’re cheerfully indifferent rather than actively hostile.

There are a lot of single men here. Not single as in unmarried, but single as in no friends.


I enjoy this kind of snark, enlivening what could otherwise be dreary exposition…the musical nerdery here seems spot-on too.

Sadly, pop music and even witty banter only get you so far, and Rob has noticed that there is an unfortunate gulf between life on vinyl and life in this world:

Well, I’d like my life to be like a Bruce Springsteen song, just once. I know I’m not born to run, I know that the Seven Sisters Road is nothing like Thunder Road, but feelings can’t be so different, can they? I’d like to phone all those people up and say good luck and good-bye,, and then they’d feel good and I’d feel good. We’d all feel good. That would be good.


Rueful smartass, yes. Grownup human, not so much. People tell him (more than once) that he is kind, but the evidence is thin on the ground. He can’t accept the loss of Laura and starts calling her all the time and basically stalking her, which is so not cool. Then her father dies, and he she calls, surprisingly, and asks him to come to the funeral. Which he should be chuffed about, but then there’s this death thing:

Everything that’s ever gone wrong for me could have been rescued by the wave of a bank manager’s wand. Or Or by a girlfriend’s sudden change of mind, or or by some quality—determination, self-awareness, resilience—that I might have found within myself if I’d looked hard enough.

I don’t want to have to cope with the sort of unhappiness Laura’s feeling. Not ever. If people have to die, I don’t want them dying near me. My Mum and Dad won’t die near me, I’ve made bloody sure of that; when they go, I’ll hardly feel a thing.


OK, Rob is an unusually self-aware creep, but definitely in creep territory. Having spent so much time with him, we are happy to see that he has at least started to recognize the thingsthat are making his life so unpleasant. But he has a long way to go, and the novel only shows him going about one-tenth of the distance. Still, one-tenth is frequently enough to win the girl, in fiction and, I suspect, in real life.

Rob’s fear of commitment, his desire to keep one foot on the ground, is certainly not an implausible issue for a guy to have, perhaps especially for a guy with his knack for getting attractive women to have sex with him. But it does get a bit tiresome, and his griping about having a girlfriend who makes more money than he does is tiresome right from the start, and rather embarrassing in an urban dude of the ‘90s.

So I enjoyed HF but I’d recommend Juliet, Naked as my favorite, along with a collection of his columns from the Believer called More Baths, Less Talking.



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His Blood Runs Through Her Instrument

My essay “His Blood Runs Through Her Instrument” is in the current issue of _Neutrons/Protons_:

It’s a tribute to my wife’s personal language style.

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Walk Me to the Corner

My essay “Walk Me to the Corner,” about the poetics of guided walking, appears in the current issue of Wordgathering:


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Wonder Woman under Deep Cover

Here is a story from Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman:

The November 1935 issue of Family Circle featured an article called “Lie Detector,” by Olive Richard. For this piece Mrs. Richard, a widowed mother of two, sought out a noted psychologist, Dr. William Marston, for advice on a friend’s son who was an inveterate liar. Having written to Dr. Marston, the inventor of a lie-detecting apparatus, she boarded a train and went to see him at “”his large, rambling house,” finding him on the lawn playing with four children and two cats. This “enormous” jovial man hardly fits her image of an dignified scholar. Charmed, she finds him “the kind of person to whom you confide things about yourself you scarcely realize.”

He shows Mrs. Richard his Lie Detector machine, which measures heart rate and blood pressure. She is skeptical: “I couldn’t feel the slightest change in my heartbeat if I were to tell you that my mother’s name is Grace instead of Ethel.” When he hooks her up to the machine, she decides to throw him a curveball by mixing truths and falsehoods.

It turns out that Olive Richard has done a bit of that in her article too. For starters, her name is not Olive Richard but Olive Byrne; the late Mr. Richard was a fiction concocted for the sake of her two (non-fictional) children. Her mother’s name really was Ethel—she was Ethel Byrne, a radical feminist who had made national headlines with a prison hunger strike. Ethel’s sister, Margaret Sanger, was a famous advocate for birth control. One suspects that these connections had not been shared with the folks at Family Circle.

It’s true that she was charmed by Dr. Marston, so much so that she was the mother of two of those children playing in the yard. However, her surprise at his appearance was a fib, since she had been living with him for nine years. They shared the house with Marston’s wife, who was of course the mother of the other two kids and who supported the family with her job as an editor at Encyclopedia Britannica.  Sometimes another of Marston’s women also lived there, in the attic; Lepore introduces her as “Marjorie Wilkes, who believed in both suffrage and bondage…” Yep, we got your Family Circle right here.

Olive also didn’t really need a demonstration of the Lie Detector, since she was usually the one who operated it when they performed their experiments. Sometimes he called it the Love Detector, as at a publicity stunt where he hooked up six chorus girls and showed  them the climax of a movie called (IIRC) The Devil and the Flesh, proving that brunettes are more easily aroused than blondes.

In case you’re wondering why this story is in a book called _The Secret History of Wonder Woman_, it’s because Marston was the creator of WW and Olive and Marston’s wife Elizabeth Holloway the primary models for her character.

Lepore’s book is full of crazy stuff like this. I haven’t even gotten into the creation of Wonder Woman and its kinky intertwinings wit the life of the Marston/Hollowy/Byrne household (I will just note that Byrne wore on her wrists something very like WW’s Bracelets of Submission, and that Marson’s nickname for her was Docile). Every chapter seems to have some unexpected bizarre connection or cameo, suitable for dinner-table entertainment. I should admit, though, that I’ve been reading the book for weeks, and am still only halfway through it; somehow, all these fascinating tidbits don’t add up to a story that I’m lured to pursue.

One other item of note: the audio book is read by the author, who does an excellent job, as long as you are not bothered by the fact that, when Lepore is quoting, she sometimes goes into an awesome imitation of the voice of Rocky the Squirrel.

[Update: I did end up whipping through the second half of the book at a much faster pace.  Though there is a staccato, digressive quality to Lepore’s story-telling, I will miss these characters, especially the enigmatic Olive, whose life was so shadowed by concealment.  I will miss Lepore’s narrating voice too–it grows on one, and the Rocky outbursts become less frequent.]


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Body of Reference: A Thought-Experiment

As reference-body let us imagine a spacious chest resembling a room with an observer inside who is equipped with apparatus. Gravitation naturally does not exist for this observer.

–Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory

Note that the observer O is inside the little room (surely even a spacious chest will start to feel small if one is trapped inside it in outer space). In other thought-experiments, the observer stands at a distance as spaceships rocket past, or sits outside watching a box in which a cat C may be alive or dead. Perhaps, indeed, the cat is imaginary (C = ki), which case it can be squared to produce a result C2 = -k2 , that is real but negative, as many cats are.

Here, by contrast, O is inside the box. He might, without loss of generality, be blind.


To the middle of the lid of the chest is fixed externally a hook with rope attached, and now a “being” (what kind of a being is immaterial to us) begins pulling at this with a constant force. The chest together with the observer then begin to move “upwards” with a uniformly accelerated motion.


O must have great mental discipline to consider it immaterial what kind of being B is pulling his little world at a constant rate of acceleration, not to wonder if it was also B who created the spacious chest or if it was B who made him blind, and why. Einstein himself had strong opinions about the nature of the being, which we may call BE, responsible for creating and controlling his own frame of reference: BE , he claimed, was subtle but not malicious, and definitely did not play with dice.


But how does the man in the chest regard the process? The acceleration of the chest will be transmitted to him by the reaction of the floor of the chest. He must therefore take up this pressure by means of his legs if he does not wish to be laid out full length on the floor.


In those days some universities had automatic wine-dispensing machines. One day at Goettingen a mathematics student M was using the machine when it malfunctioned and the wine failed to stop flowing. Those who found M laid out full-length on the floor asked him “Vielleicht ist etwas los?” (“Perhaps something is wrong?”), to which he replied, “Vielleicht nicht.”


If he releases a body which he previously had in his hand, the acceleration of the chest will no longer be transmitted to this body, and for this reason the body will approach the floor of the chest with an accelerated relative motion. The observer will further convince himself that the acceleration of the body towards the floor of the chest is always of the same magnitude, …


Even without elaborate apparatus, even if he cannot see, O may convince himself, by dropping objects on his feet, that they are subject to the same acceleration a, arriving with the same velocity v = (2ax)1/2, where x is the distance from hand to foot. If he has objects of varying mass in his pocket, say a groschen coin, a watch, and a bowling ball, then O will easily register the proportionally varying force with which they strike the foot F.

Given these experiences, O will naturally conclude that he is in a gravitational field; he will interpret that taut rope as a sign, not that his space-closet is being pulled to astronomical speeds, but that it is held suspended and motionless by the rope, kept from falling toward whatever is creating the gravity. The kernel of general relativity is the realization that O is not wrong; from this equivalence of gravity and acceleration follow all the weirdnesses of curved spacetime.


Ought we to smile at the man and say that he errs in his conclusion? I do not believe we ought if we wish to remain consistent; we must rather admit that his mode of grasping the situation violates neither reason nor known mechanical laws.


There is a surprising difference in feel between the two parts of relativity. Special relativity sometimes seems like a hall of mirrors: if A and B pass each other at great speed, A will think, “I am just sitting here as B whizzes by; everything is normal over here, but her spaceship is all squished and her clock is running slow.” B will think, “Everything is normal here in my stationary ship, but as A whizzes by, her spaceship is squished and her clock is running slow.” Time and velocity and length have no meaning apart from each observer’s frame of reference.

In general relativity, of course, O cannot tell a gravitational field from a rope-tow, but there is a more important distinction: either you are being pulled and pushed around by some force, or you are in free fall, following the natural curve of the universe at the point where you find yourself. And you can make this distinction by consulting your gut, as you feel the lurch of acceleration in your stomach, or your feet, as the bowling ball hits them. If O takes a trip on which he is whipped around by persistent acceleration while his friend O’ stays home, then both will agree, when he returns, that O’s watch has run slower. And no cats will have been harmed.





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What’s in a suffix?

Each language, they say, is a world. But each derivational morpheme? Back in the day, the day of doublet and hose, of rapier-and-dagger men, the Spanish brand had so much swagging street cred that the English English started lending macho flair to a word by adding “ado” and making fake Spanish words like “bravado” and “desperado.”
-oon too was a token of Romance romance, though it leaves a bitter aftertaste. Doubloons would seem more at home in a pirate’s hoard than a grocer’s till, and a saloon is a deal more swashbuckling than a salon. But the first maroons were not castaways, they were runaways, escaped from the death-camps of St. Domingue (slaves in the cane fields were worked to death so quickly that they were replaced, not by the children, but by fresh captives from Africa), living rough in the highlands, turning to that old-time religion and waiting for the day of vengeance. This history lies curled like a malign fetus inside our modern language.
Dragoons were just soldiers, called dragons in French for their fire-breathing muskets, but to be dragooned is to be an unarmed civilian ordered around at gunpoint. The word at first referred to those on the wrong side of a religious fence, but it seems more and more timely in a country where the police are asymptotically approaching the military.
Eventually –oon acquired enough of an aura that we started making our own words with it. Something, perhaps the combination of manliness and filth, made it appropriate for ‘spitoon.’ And someone gave a purer sense to the racism of the tribe with ‘octaroon.’ These precedents suggest that we might do well simply to kick some dirt over this toxic morpheme and leave its grave unmarked.
Then again, maybe we have a use for –oon as long as we have the the traces and consequences of maroon and dragoon and octaroon in our culture. Maybe it could be used to lampoon the electioons in which the most important voters are corporations orthe informatioon that comes from nowhere and circulates endlessly around the internet, or the incarceratioon of junkies and the mentally ill instead of the billionaire crooks who shattered our economy. Just a thought.

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Poem: I See It Feelingly

My poem “I See It Feelingly” appears in the new issue of _Wordgathering_:

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