reality is weirder than you think

Tag: books

The unlikely influence of Earthsea

Ursula K LeGuin died recently. Her book A Wizard of Earthsea was one of my biggest influences growing up.

I’ve never read much else from her, although I should. The original Earthsea trilogy was good, but the 4th book veered into weird territory that didn’t make sense to me. I’m old-school and archetypal like that.

I’ve heard that she disliked her earlier writings (like my favorite) because they were too traditional and patriarchal, and felt like she “found her voice” when she started injecting feminism in her work. I read The Disposessed, which was interesting for a while but ended sour and preachy. I hate it when books do that.

I keep meaning to read The Left Hand of Darkness. Maybe now is a good time to do that.

When I lived in Portland, I met her once. She signed my copy of A Wizard of Earthsea and was very quiet and writerly. It turns out I lived in her neighborhood for a few years, but I never passed her on the sidewalks or in the park.

Here is my favorite passage from Earthsea. Our hero, Ged, has just escaped the embodiment of evil–the shadow–only to fall into temptation of unlimited power by Benderesk, Lord of the Terrenon, and the Lady Serret. “Only darkness can defeat the dark,” she says.

Ged’s eyes cleared, and his mind. He looked down at Serret. “It is light that defeats the dark,” he said stammering,–“light.”

As he spoke he saw, as plainly as if his own words were the light that showed him, how indeed he had been drawn here, lured here, how they had used his fear to lead him on, and how they would, once they had him, have kept him. They had saved him from the shadow, indeed, for they did not want him to be possessed by the shadow until he had become a slave of the Stone, then they would let the shadow into the walls, for a gebbeth was a better slave even than a man. If he had once touched the Stone, or spoken to it, he would have been utterly lost. Yet, even as the shadow had not quite been able to catch up with him and seize him, so the Stone had not been able to use him–not quite. He had almost yielded, but not quite. He had not consented. It is very hard for evil to take hold of an unconsenting soul.

I love A Wizard of Earthsea because it is a little book about fear–where it comes from, how it chases you, and how you and you alone must stare it in the face and defeat it.  You might think that Dune is a book about fear. Dune does indeed have the great Litany Against Fear, but it is one player on a stage of many things. The hero’s journey in Earthsea revolves around fear. It is an intimate, terrifying portrait.

This passage reminds me how easily we–especially those of us who understand some of the unseen undergirdings of the universe–can be tempted by power that is much bigger than us, that reveals all that we want to know and be. Power that would ultimately enslave us, because it is false.

This passage reminds me to keep up the good fight, and not give in to temptation. And yet, it also gives me hope–for even though I will stumble, I do not consent.

That idea–that evil cannot take you without your consent–is I think what marks the heroic men and women who stare evil in the face to investigate or prosecute or report or even just bear witness and who do not give into it.

We are not perfect. We will tremble. But evil cannot touch us if we do not allow it.

There’s a reason we are given a shield of faith and a sword of the spirit.

One of my failings in life is that I have not faced my fear, my shadow self, in a manner that would be worthy of Ged. I have stared fear in the face, certainly, and lived my life, but there are still places where fear has its claws burrowed in.

Now. Rewind to 2011, when I was first introduced to the band Gatsbys American Dream. I will have to write a whole post about them. Writing the paragraphs above made me tear up, but trying to put into words how I feel about Gatsbys makes me remember why I hate the world.

Their masterpiece is Volcano. Musically, it is pop-punk but asymmetrical and interesting. The songwriting is delicious. The album is cohesive, wrapping around to reference itself with music and lyrics. It is a beautiful package tied up with a little bow (my favorite).

And then. You barely hear it, a plaintive but insistent piano melody. It builds in intensity, and you finally catch ahold of some lyrics:

My pride ripped a hole in the world that set loose…a shadow….

I sail into jaws of the dragon: a beast before me, a shadow behind me….

“Is this…a song about Earthsea?” you think to yourself. “I thought I was the only person in the WORLD who cares about that little book.” You listen again. It still fits. You are excited, but realize that the likelihood of a lesser-known song of an indie band is highly unlikely to be based on your 12-year-old self’s favorite book. You decide that whatever you learn about the lyrics to that song, you’ll always pretend it’s about Earthsea even if it isn’t.

Lyrically, all of Volcano based on science fiction and fantasy. Books, video games, television. Ender’s Game makes an appearance, as does Interview with a Vampire.

Rest assured, friend, this really is a song about Sparrowhawk and his shadow.

Faculty dreams

I started reading The Four Cultures of the Academy for work, but I’m finishing it because the author is incredibly insightful. It’s the kind of book that rings so true that it’s funny.

I haven’t had this much fun reading a book since Antifragile. Like Nassim Taleb, author William H. Berquist puts words to many of the things that I’ve already observed, but arranges them in a useful way and explains them with more insight, experience, and technical knowledge than I have. It both affirms my confirmation bias while providing useful information–the best kind of book.

This is one of my favorite passages. See if you can guess what this story reveals about the rank the male faculty on the hierarchy.

Our protagonist–the ideal scientist or scholar–usually dwells on some lofty plane. Subsidized by family wealth or secure in a university appointment, he (rarely a woman) seems to be oblivious to the more mundane matters of finance. Personal relationships have a low priority, though the professor may be seduced at the end of the film or novel by an attractive laboratory assistant, reporter, alumna, or daughter of the university president. His requisite apparel is either a white lab coat or a herringbone jacket. He invariably smokes a pipe and partakes of an afternoon sherry. The scientist or scholar is often a former college athlete (the Rhodes Scholar model) but is not physically active only when an emergency occurs (about two-thirds of the way through the novel or movie). His physical prowess emerges only when the monster is invading, when fieldwork is required, or when our protagonist wants to show that he is still an all-American fellow by participating in a pick-up football game being played on the grass in front of the laboratory or library. Our modern-day equivalent to the scholar-athlete is Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones.

The scientist-scholar’s work is usually performed in solitude with one or two young proteges who provide appropriate respect and encouragement. Neither our protagonist nor his assistants are very interested in the ethical implications of their work until late in the movie or novel. They are concerned with the ultimate impact of their research on the welfare of mankind but are shortsighted about its immediate implications. The work in itself is a breakthrough–always on the frontiers of knowledge. In Thomas Kuhn’s terminology, this research is never in the realm of “normal science,” but is always in the realm of revolution and new-paradigm construction.

The research or scholarship is, of course, always successful. Very little attention is given to problems of dissemination; the new knowledge is immediately available to the entire world. only early on in the novel or movie is there resistance to the dissemination of our protagonist’s findings. By the end of the movie or novel, the scientist or scholar often shifts attention from his own work to broader social or religious concerns. The quest continues.

Let’s see…introspective? Check. Unusual? Yes; often cultivated deliberately. Unattractive? Generally on the left side of the bell curve. Bitter? Often.

$10 says the seductress is a redhead.

This is such prototypical version of Gamma: A Love Story (the title that I give all the different flavors of gamma fantasies in media) that it almost hurts. And yet, it really is the backbone of the dream of the research faculty. Everybody wants to be the secret king of research. Everybody wants to get the girl without having a clue. Everybody wants to never deal with money again in their lives.

And risk…don’t even get me started on the risk tolerance of faculty.

This book was written in 1992 so I’d like to say that things have changed since then…but I don’t think they have. The type of person that self-selects for a faculty role exhibits almost exactly the same characteristics of a gamma on the hierarchy.

Remember that the next time you ask why universities don’t just stand up to their students.


Coming soon

Glamour in the home

More on decorating. Forgive me (#SorryNotSorry), it was the best book on decor I’ve read to date.

This bit deals with glamour in our homes. While the author focuses on glamour as a style, rather than glamour as a concept, she highlights the concept that we all need a little bit of glamour in our homes. It helps us transcend the mundane.

Given how many mundane tasks a house must perform, a bit of frippery is actually a necessity. It can elevate a room into an experience. Glamour does require guts, though, because you need to express it with a bold stroke, not a tentative gesture. What creates glamour? Sparkle! Shine! Embellishment! Color! Pattern! Glamour is an essential excess, the icing on our cake.

Don’t think I am suggesting that we all have to go for an over-the-top, glitzy Hollywood “more is more” kind of look. In fact, that is rather hard to pull off. Miles Redd, a decorator who does not fear the glam, pulls out all the stops–crystal chandelier, gilded wood, chinoiserie wallpaper, leopard fabric, etc.–but keeps a tight rein on the color palette. You can also be selective and elegant, choosing perhaps one brilliantly ornate mirror, a lavish wallpaper, or a single glittering chandelier, in an otherwise modern or refined room. You don’t need to overdo it, but you can’t be wimpy: that chandelier or that mirror or wallpaper has to assert itself loudly and clearly. Glamour is not meek.

I’ve always liked the idea of having something sparkly or shiny in a room (or on an outfit), but I never put two and two together. Of course it would be an element of glamour to wake a room up and give it that extra bit of energy.

I also love the idea of not being wimpy in your own home. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of “good enough” or “nobody else will see this,” but sometimes it’s worth investing in a piece that makes you want to rise to the occasion on everything else. For me, in an outfit, that’s a great pair of shoes. Maybe in decor, it’s a mirror, for that sense of dancing light.

Because at the end of the day, isn’t it light that makes us happy? Dark, dreary homes are never welcoming.

It’s no great coincidence that the key to making people feel sparkly is to make the room itself sparkly. Candlelight, and low light in general, is essential for creating an elegant mood. The reason we still bother with candles, antiquated as they are, is that their light is hypnotic. And flattering. And it cannot be duplicated by any form of electric light. Candles mix best with dimly lit rooms. So keep all complementary lights low so that candlelight can cast its magic spell.

Natural light is best, but when that fails, there’s hygge and candlelight.

After that is Truth, I suppose. Because if you lose the truth, you’re truly sunk.

Even in home decor.

Even simple things like TASTE are subjective

Food Republic points out an interesting phenomenon in its review of a book called Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating. Taste, it seems, is not just dependent on smell, but also on sight.

For example, a mouthwash manufacturer told me that their orange variant didn’t taste as astringent to people as their regular blue variety, despite the formulation of the active ingredients staying the same. It makes no sense until you learn something about the rules of multisensory integration governing how the brain combines the senses. Here, I am thinking of “sensory dominance” — where the brain uses one sense to infer what is going on in the others.

I’ve always found color theory to be fascinating, but I’ve never considered that “taste theory” might also be a field of study.

While everyone’s tastebuds are slightly different, and everyone has their own preferences in how certain things taste (some people like a lot of salt or spice, some don’t), I’ve always considered the majority of taste to be a mechanical thing.

It makes sense that smell is involved, since the nose is so directly connected to the mouth, and the smell of a food is usually related to the taste of that food. Except for Hot Pockets, the Biggest Lie.

Likewise, the sense of touch plays in to the taste of food because things like texture, mouthfeel, and temperature can also effect taste. You can taste a difference between cold brew and hot brew coffee, or a hot or cold chocolate chip cookie.

But it appears that sight plays a big part as well, and not just in the “we eat with our eyes first” sense. Sure, a meal can be beautiful, but not everything is. I don’t gaze in awe at my bottle of mouthwash.

What I find especially fascinating about this intersection between taste and our other senses is how the brain mediates between them. It makes the “truth” of a taste that much harder to get at–and knowing that our brain is running a bunch of interference with our other senses alongside can mean that it would be nearly impossible for us to get at the “truth of taste.”

That’s not a problem for people who just want to eat dinner, but I’m thinking about people who taste wine for a living or even food critics–maybe getting a better presentation DOES make the food taste better.

And that’s not even getting into nostalgia, memory, or expectation.

Gastrophysics is going on my to-read list.

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