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On books and pretending to have read them.

Posted in blogging, books, education, ill effects of computers, memory, shyness, Uncategorized, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2010 by katekanno

I’ve always been inarticulate, particularly in groups when the social anxiety ramps up.  I have a tendency to lock onto some obscure, often not very meaningful detail, and wax incomprehensible. Summarizing is not a strong suit, and  I cannot, for the life of me, exude an air of mastery over anything so much as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Yet, what baffled me when I returned to the States five years ago, was how much that skill, online or off,  has usurped genuine knowledge. There seemed to be more value placed on knowing about something, more so if that thing could be dismissed with a clever reference to theory or more appallingly,  a wikipedia link.

Before the internet we called that jousting with a trashcan and a garden hoe.

Even worse is that it now gets the nod from self-help manuals like Pierre Bayard’s “How to Talk About Books that You Haven’t Read,” which Tracy Seeley, a vanguard in the slow reading movement, sees as a more sinister sign of our fraying focus.


And it’s phony as all get up, too.

I’m the first to admit that I’m as insecure  as the next person, but I’d prefer to use that anxiety as a guide. What haven’t I read? Where am I woefully ignorant?  And then I’ll go out and pick up a book, try to gain at least a meager grasp over what I know I don’t know.  It’s not a very efficient system, a little too random, but more often than not the serendipity pays off in ways that I would hope are more creative than the simple art of name dropping.

Hibernation over, hopefully…

Posted in blogging, lifehacking, Tokyo, Uncategorized, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2010 by katekanno

It’s been a long three months since I’ve posted. Getting re-acquainted with Tokyo a new job, as well as a few writing projects, have been part of it.  The other has been our new internet situation.

When we moved into our apartment, we had trouble accessing our WiFi. We fussed and moaned for a few days, and then realized —  wow! — We were so much happier without it.

I’ve been more focused than I’ve been in years, and have not only completed two drafts of my first professional script, but three short stories of which I’m truly proud. I’ve sent them off, received one very hopeful rejection email, and am happily waiting for the rest to circulate back through the ether.

I’ve finally, finally reached that point where writing is a happy compulsion. I knew it was there; it just needed one tiny inconvenience to nudge it awake — in this case it meant having to carry my laptop to the kitchen and hook it up to a LAN cable.  The old stand and surf also has an added benefit of making me more focused about what I’m looking for online.

Other people have more control over their online life. I didn’t.  And when you don’t have control, particularly in cases of technology, it’s sometimes best to downgrade. Throw a shoe in the loom, replace that microwave with a conventional oven. The food’s still there. It’s just better.

Tangent Universes or Thomassons トマソン

Posted in Art, blogging, books, Discoveries, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2010 by katekanno

Ever suspect that a space in your everyday surroundings is the result of a failed teleportation test? A Philadelphia experiment involving office buildings and old movie theaters rather than human guinea pigs?

In Japan, they’re called thomassons, named by artist Genpei Hasegawa after a hitter for the Yomiuri Giants who could well…no longer hit. As anyone who’s spent time here knows, rapid postwar development and politicians’ love of public works projects has turned the country into an industrialized Winchester house full of half-built structures, stairways to nowhere, and water pipes jutting mysteriously out of telephone poles.

Thomassons are any human built space that has lost its use, but remains part of the structure that has taken its place.  Coming across one is mysterious and almost thrilling: Imagine you were suddenly able to see a sign for Platform 9 3/4 in Paddington station, and you’ll have an idea.

Now back in Japan with my trusty camera, I thought I’d follow up on that lost column and have some fun in the process. I’m in a rural area, and some of these photos don’t necessarily fit the definition of a thomasson, but they’re close enough.

I found this next to a rice paddy. A board jammed into a metal grate, almost as if it had teleported from some Home Depot of the future and gotten stuck. That someone would actually saw into the metal grate to insert the board seems the less likely alternative.

And this Tardis-like silo has a thoroughly modern door on its second story, but no stairs, not even a ladder. Who goes in? Who leaves? Who bumps her head or breaks his leg on the way out?

I’ll continue to update the blog as I find them.

Also, Hasegawa’s book HYPERART: THOMASSON  is finally getting an English translation.

Creating a reading journal (a cozy catastrophe in progress)

Posted in lifehacking, Lists, literature, stationery lust, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2010 by katekanno

Here I am in this noisy café, unable to concentrate thanks to a gaggle of chain-smoking obasans complaining mightily about absent friends and their sorely inadequate children.

It’s as good a time as any to update my blog.As I’ve been making my way through the notebook, I’ve been able to devise a my own version of a reading journal and thought I’d share.

Note: I don’t like to choose sections of my notebook for use beforehand: doing so wrecks the fun of writing in it, sort of like slogging carelessly into a pristine patch of snow takes away the magic, so I organize as I go along.

1. Orange is for Reading

This is the reading journal. A work in progress, but basically if the book is certain to contain a lot of words I’ve never heard of, I draw a line down the page. The inner side I use to write those words and the outer edge for quotations, thoughts, or questions.What I like about this system is that it’s an easy way for me to stay honest about what one blogger aptly called “the shit I know I don’t know.”

2. Beige is for Writing.

I don’t really have a system in place here. If I have a story idea or to expand on something in my reading journal, I scribble it down and slap on a tag. That way I can come back and grimace at my leisure.

3. White is for er… Japanese

The move back to Japan demands that I get my ass in gear and start studying the language again. I passed level one of the Japanese proficiency test back in 1997, but 12 years (five of them out of the country) is plenty of time to get rusty. Thus, I added a language section. I use it the same way I do the reading journal, except there’s A LOT more vocabulary space, and my thoughts are mainly awkward practice sentences.

4. Yellow is for Lists

For anything and everything. I’m especially fond of book lists, but they’re also wonderful writing prompts,  great for mining memory and personal experience — a tip from Barbara DeMarco Barrett’s Pen on Fire.

This is what the closed book looks like. I use tags from mujirushi. I love their muted colors. I love their notebooks, too. And their pens. And their lunch boxes, and…I’ll stop now.

That’s pretty much it. It works well so far, but I’m sure that I’ll be wringing my hands over a new class/system soon. How do you organize your notebooks/ reading journals?

Invasion of the Metacrats

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2010 by katekanno

One of my favorite comic scenes takes place in Annie Hall, when Alvy Singer asks an attractive, well-coiffed couple about the secret to their happy relationship. The woman responds that she is “very shallow and empty…(has) no ideas and nothing interesting to say,”  to which the man adds, “And I’m exactly the same way.”

I recall that scene anytime I hear someone brandishing the word meta. There’s an enormous contradiction in self-consciously proclaiming one’s meta-tude,  a lack of self-awareness that Allen’s couple, who could pass for hipsters in today’s Manhattan, ironically has in droves.

My distrust for the word, however, has more to do with its sinister appropriation in corporatized education, where the ability to self-regulate has become a quickie route for educrats to violate personal privacy at the deepest level.

Take so-called cognitive reading strategies, among them “think alouds,” where students are told to verbalize their responses to a text while another student sits by and labels those thoughts from a predetermined list of categories. If the kid expresses boredom, he isn’t really bored, he’s “monitoring.” If he or she relates to a character, it’s not identification but “adopting an alignment.” Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Yet so-called literacy experts dare to tout these strategies as ways to help students become better readers, when such strategies force students to take what are most likely complex thoughts about a text, and filter them through awkward third grade phrasing: “What this means to me is…or…a golden line for me is…(note the emphasis on me, whereas most might argue that literature is a way to understand the other). It presupposes a lack of complexity in the students’ thinking, ignoring overlap, tearing out ambiguities, and forcing consensus on what kids might actually be taking from the text, dismissing entirely, as Jaron Lanier argues in You Are Not a Gadget, “the mystery of human existence.”

Lanier describes the elevation of the meta as a kind of digital Maoism, the mash-up being more powerful than the sources who are mashed, and in education this attempt  to label and compartmentalize each and every thought further devalues the humanities as a mere utility for a phony form of self-actualization.

Imagine if the genome project simply stopped at the last gene, attempting to diagnose every physical trait and disease, while ignoring the discovery that complex proteins play just as large a role in our biology. This is what so-called education experts wish to do. Only they’ve given those genes such ugly names, and they have no view as to how they work together.
Forcing students to sift their thoughts into categories such as monitoring, visualizing, and reflection — the latter a popular form of behavior modification in today’s ed schools —  denies a person’s individuality, his or her ability to think in manifold and complex ways of which we’re not anywhere near an understanding.

It’s a violation of our right to privacy and our right to name the terms of our relationship with the authors we read, and even more, it will backfire, because the educrats, having little understanding of the value of literature, and thus not a very good understanding of human beings, haven’t thought to factor in performance.

They will not be accessing young people’s thoughts, nor coming to a greater understanding of how to improve literacy, they will simply be instilling a kind of defensive performativity in their subjects, that denied a quality curriculum and the room to think, might translate to the real aim of all of this: conformity.

The Road: Cormac McCarthy's Guide for Helicopter Parents

Posted in books, eco anxiety, education, genre fiction, genre wars, science fiction, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2009 by katekanno

The film adaptation of The Road opens this weekend, perfect timing for post-Thanksgiving guilt and much easier than a long workout. I’ve never quite been able to take McCarthy seriously, which probably has much to do with an overabundance of road trips: the cowboy, sacred steer of middle class radio listeners was a common form of torture employed by my parents, who’d flip immediately to the Prairie Home Companion, or those utterly unfunny Cowboy Poets.

And then there’s McCarthy’s blatant misogyny. In the Road it comes through with the “Woman,” i.e. the bad mother, who kills herself – a sensible decision in this case – but before doing so spends two pages calling herself a whore: “You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot. . Because I am done with my whorish heart and I have been for a long time.”

The Road’s sonorous prose and kiddy pool depth has also been a choice target in the genre wars: bald proof that literary fiction is at a loss for ideas as it rifles through the sci-fi candy bag, scarfing down undeserved critical acclaim. Once you realize there aren’t any actual ideas behind the chest beating, Bunsen burner cannibalism, and miraculous morels, you should rush out to read Canticle for Leibowitz or Parable of the Sower.

Ah, but there are! Maybe.

The popularity of McCarthy’s novel, you see, is not merely another sign that literary taste is a matter of conformity. Forget about climate change, meteor fears, or annihilation via nukes or Oprah, because that’s not what the book is about. It’s not about an archetypal father really either, but rather an archetypal helicopter parent: the “man,” who still finds the time and strength to sensitively minister to his son’s every physical and psychological need, despite starvation, cannibals, and an utter lack of hope. Just look at the guy, slavishly hovering over his child, lovingly scrounging for that Pepsi, and hacking up his lungs in bad weather rather than spending a few extra days in that food-stocked bomb shelter. The son — like two 18-year-old boys I saw being massaged by their mother at the library while they studied (creeped out yet?)  — does nary a lick of work in this bleak landscape.

Then there’s the pop psychology: “What you put in your head is there forever.” McCarthy plops this truism throughout the book, hoping it will magically gain weight, while the father, on top of the physical privation, still manages to shield his child from horror after horror, like some superhuman V-chip, although if he really wanted that kid to survive, he might want to own up to the frakked state of the world.

Leave it to those as naïve and jittery as a helicopter parents, who live in gated communities free from the terrors of working poor to believe it. Only those who trust the mantras of test scores and college resumes, who think that a prestigious degree means that one is “educated” would find depth in this misplaced nugget of therapy culture.

It all falls apart when one confronts the pesky reality outside the book, wherein millions of children in less cushy areas of the world live under not quite as awful conditions, but pretty damn close. Those children do not enjoy the luxury of such assiduous parenting in the form of covered eyes and stories about “carrying the fire.”  Much like kids in those generations muckraked by Dickens, they live and toil away in hellish conditions, without the luxury of someone worrying about what they put into their precious psyches.

There forever? I doubt it. And if so, so what? I much prefer a line from faux suburbanite Donald Draper — once again, TV trumps literary fiction: “It will amaze you how much it didn’t happen.”

I guess it’s not surprising that scads of terrified parents who’ve chosen to battle rather than to engage with their communities would find The Road appealing. The trials of The Road’s starved, embattled superdad provide the perfect ennobling reflection of their own daily squabbles with teachers, principals, and admissions officers, the piecemealing of academic resumes for their infantilized progeny. For as bleak as it gets, the book nevertheless  provides the delusion that even in such horrifying conditions, they might still micromanage our children’s lives, while in the real world protecting  them from the glaringly obvious fact that our progress on social and economic equality, not to mention that pesky climate, are in dire need of a reality check.


McCarthy’s book certainly isn’t one, but it’s popularity is just a sign that many have already given up trying. When I hear the term helicopter parent, the words overprotective and assertive rarely come to mind. Remember that helicopters after all, are a privileged means of escape.


Just watch any pre-Road apocalypse film. You’ll see.

Social Networking: Playing Sidekick to our Shadows

Posted in blogging, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2009 by katekanno

I was listening to an excerpt of Patricia Bray’s workshop lecture on the protagonist. Bray is the author of The Chronicles of Josan and the Sword of Change series. Although she actually spent more time (at least in the clip) talking about the sidekick, she made some very interesting points that immediately pushed me into a few wild speculations on how social networking and the use of technology might be shifting the way we perceive ourselves and others.

Sidekicks, Bray states, are useful as they can stimulate audience interest in the first person while still acting as chronicler. She uses the Watson/Holmes model as an example: Watson narrates the story, taking care of all of the workaday details, while remaining in first person and thereby creating a gateway for reader identification.

Yet the sidekick narrator, she adds, also allows the reader the cushy position of superiority to Watson. We may identify with the good Dr, but we can imagine ourselves to be more like Holmes, the old “If I were like Watson, I like totally would have figured that out by this point.” And last and most obvious, the appeal in creating creating a sidekick , Bray states, is because multiple characters pick up a larger audience/readership.

So, where am I going with all of this?

Social networking applications also allow us to present a “real” version of ourselves that takes on the dual role of first person chronicler. Take the status update in which we can switch back from first or third person. “I am not happy that my cat has lobbed a hair ball on my lap,” or “Ryan is not happy that her cat has gobbed a hair ball on her lap.” This is both an act of chronicling and a call for identification.

Second, in creating these personas on Facebook or Twitter, its often the case that we try to project someone who is more Holmes than Watson — and this is a very loose comparison, by which I mean the role of a main protagonist — but the irony is that through our labors our real selves play sidekick to our own projection.

Third, no matter how little glamor or mystique our own profiles actually present, our voyeuristic tendencies mixed in with our ability to haze over reality, allow us, like the reader, to feel superior to those other personas that our “friends” project on the web. Think about how many times you’ve curled your lip ever so slightly at seeing your friends misspell a word or hearing that their movie plans include a second viewing of New Moon? That we rarely reflect on how asinine we may in fact look to others, insures that we remain busy pumping air into that puffed up and ultimately phony profile.

And as for attracting a larger audience through multiple characters, can you think of a better example than Twitter, where retweets from our collection of followees spawn an even greater of followers and so on until we can barely make out why we signed up in the first place.

There are arguments that social networking is in fact thinning out our personalities, making us hollower, flatter, and ultimately less interesting. I definitely agree that there’s something to that. But it’s even more unsettling when we remember that it wasn’t Watson who was performing all of those amazing mental feats. It was Holmes who kept his eyes and his mind trained firmly on the world, while we, pale shadows to that series of sparsely worded one liners, fabricate a weak reflection of what was once ourselves.