This is Your Brain on Poetry

When I first read this article, I couldn’t help but think of that old TV public service announcement “This is your brain on drugs.” While poems don’t fry our brains, there’s something peculiar going on inside our heads when we read them, infecting us, in the words of Nabokov, with  “the telltale tingle between the shoulder blades.” 

Wish I could find a picture of what your brain actually looks like on poetry. Meanwhile, read more to see what science tells us. this-is-what-happens-to-your-brain-when-you-read-poetry

Free Universe

 

It was a nice space
as universes go—
everything was free there,
from love, will, and time
to lunch, radicals and verse.
But the cost was too dear,
it could not last,
as even the strong force
was freed of its role
and things flew apart.
They had a big sale
but no one came,
so they closed their doors
and blinked goodnight.

Originally published Jan. 2017 in Care, a special publication of the science fiction fan magazine Not One of Us

Irreverent Musings on Nature

Print cover frontHere’s a new review of The Absurd Naturalist, posted on Amazon by writer, editor, and reviewer Don Martin. Like all authors, I enjoy reading reviews (especially good ones), but this one is particularly entertaining in the way it creatively weaves together some of my essays in a playful, irreverent tone befitting the essays. Thanks, Don!

on August 16, 2015
This handsome volume contains 43 essays tangentially related to the subject of naturalism, or if you prefer, the avocation of being a naturalist. I use the term ‘tangentially’ very loosely here, because I am just not so sure. Maybe if you stretched it a bit, but that would be fine because the stories are quite good.Where else might you read about the evolution of the toaster oven, and which naturally-selected physical traits you should look for when considering a replacement model? Or, have you recently considered the question of same-species marriage? No matter where you come down on the issue I think we’d all agree that procreation should be limited to an intra-species affair. When you start to cross-breed, say, people and cats, or maybe dolphins and polar bears, you can never really be sure what you’ll get. And the author treats us to what he claims is the first X-rated naturalist essay, which would be an oddity indeed! Unfortunately he strays badly afield and we never really get to the juicy good parts.Perhaps you may be considering becoming a naturalist yourself. Why you would ever want to do that I just don’t know, but no worries! Contained herein are two companion essays, ‘The Well-Dressed Naturalist’ and ‘The Well-Equipped Naturalist.’ Careful study of those chapters will allow you to at least pretend to be a naturalist, and do a convincing job of it, even though you probably have no formal training in the science and have certainly never studied it.And, of course, you’ll need to know how to keep javelinas out of your garden, which you can never actually do, so the best bet there is just to peacefully coexist with them. Which is not the recommended approach when it comes to packrats. Packrats mean an all-out war, man on rat, to the death! You will not win that one either. After considering the various animal species you will certainly, as a pseudo-naturalist, want to move on to the world of plants. And you’ll certainly need some legal advice on how to file wrongful-death lawsuits on behalf of your dearly departed zinnias. You know those ones. The ones who looked perfectly green and healthy at the nursery, but which suddenly expired of some mysterious ailment as soon as you bought them, brought them home, and lovingly planted them in your garden?

This book sits right on the line between humor and satire, and it sits there very well indeed. Good satire is becoming a lost art, and it’s refreshing to see someone who knows his way around it. I guarantee you that you’ll at least smile as you read these short essays, and I’d be willing to bet you’ll even catch yourself laughing out loud at times. They really are that good! The Absurd Naturalist is quite entertaining, and is very highly recommended.         Buy a copy here: Amazon http://www.amazon.com/The-Absurd-Naturalist-Irreverent-Musings/dp/1502977281

Ten-Minute Tent Talk

Please join me on Sunday, March 15, from 12:40 to 12:50, at the Tucson Festival of Books (Authors Pavilion West), where I will be giving a “Ten-Minute Tent Talk” that is guaranteed 100% free of all serious insights or facts. Copies of all my new book “The Absurd Naturalist” will be available for sale.Print cover front

A Nice Cave with a View

The Absurd NaturalistAN Transparent

Recently I signed up for a DNA test at one of those ancestry sites. It was a little pricey, but the idea intrigued me. Since my family originated in Lithuania, I fancied there might be some kings or brave knights of old, or at least a wizard (vedlys) or two in my background.

After sending in the usual saliva swab, I waited anxiously for the results. Months went by without a reply. Finally, I decided to call the company.

I had to go through three different people before I was transferred to the head honcho. “Yes, Mr. Twaronite, we have your lab results here. You may want to sit down for this.” I did not like the sound of this. The last time someone used those words was when the police called to tell me that my stolen car had been located at the bottom of the La Brea tar pits.

“Your ancestry is most unusual, Mr. Twaronite. In fact, we would like to perform some additional tests on you. If you give permission, you might even appear in a research paper. Would you be willing to come down to our office?”

“Not until you tell me what’s going on. What do you mean unusual? Are my genes abnormal? Is there some kind of disease I should know about? Am I gonna die?”

“No, you’re not going to die, at least not yet.”

“What is it then? Is it something about my ancestors? OK, so maybe I’ve got some bad dudes in my background. I can live with that. Whatever it is, please tell me!”

“When we started comparing your DNA matches to look for common ancestors, there was nothing at all surprising in your recent background. You have a few matches in old Vilnius—a seventeenth-century tavern keeper on your maternal side, and an undertaker and gypsy on your paternal side—and some more recent relatives in Kaunas. But as we plotted farther back, your genes simply went off the charts. You’ve heard of Neanderthals, Mr. Twaronite?”

“Of course I’ve heard of them. An early human that ran around Europe and Asia during the last Ice Ages, right? Muscle-bound guys with big brows, lived in caves. I’ll bet some of them even lived in Lithuania. So what are you saying—that I’ve got a few Neanderthal genes in my background? I guess it’s possible that some of my ancestors might have messed around a bit—hey, we’re all human. Now that I think about it, I remember reading somewhere that all modern humans have a few of their genes kicking around in us. So what’s the big deal?”

“Yes, it is true that most humans of European or Asian ancestry possess a small percentage of Neanderthal genes, somewhere around 1 to 4%. Indeed, as much as 20% of the Neanderthal genome may exist in human populations today. But yours is a special case, Mr. Twaronite. Let us just say that in your genetic makeup Neanderthals are exceptionally well-represented.”

“Are you saying that I’m some kind of Alley Oop? I can assure you, I don’t look like that at all. What kind of percentage are we talking about?”

“Near as we can figure, it’s close to 63%. So far as we know, no other human on earth possesses such a high percentage of Neanderthal genetic material. That’s why we’d like to study you as soon as possible.”

“So what you’re telling me is that my ancestors not only hooked up occasionally with Neanderthals—they had the hots for them. Does that make me some kind of freak or something?”

“Not at all, Mr. Twaronite. Neanderthal genes possess many fine qualities advantageous to human survival, such as resistance to certain diseases and the ability to adapt to cold climates. You should be proud of your lineage. Indeed, your genetic signature matches up closely with a small group of Neanderthals living along the Baltic Sea in Lithuania approximately 35,000 years ago. They were probably some of the last living members of their species before they became extinct.”

“I guess that makes me a bit of a caveman.”

“Well, I wouldn’t put it quite that way. While some Neanderthals constructed elaborate huts, many did make use of the limestone caves common to much of Eurasia. These were not simple caves, mind you, but highly organized homes, with separate spaces devoted to sleeping, eating, and socializing. Despite the popular stereotypes, these early humans shared much in common with our own species. Their brain size was similar to our own. They fashioned complex tools, and even buried their dead. Let’s just say you’re more Neanderthal than anyone alive today.”

“You know I have been feeling some strange urges lately. It seems to be getting warmer and warmer around here. Sometimes I feel like heading north to a colder climate. Meet some new people. Find a nice cave with a view.”
                                                    ©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses December 2014 http://www.5ensesmag.com/a-nice-cave-with-a-view/

Read this and other essays in Gene’s new book The Absurd Naturalist. Available now from Amazon  http://www.amazon.com/Absurd-Naturalist-Irreverent-Musings-Nature/dp/1502977281/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1417381754&sr=1-1&keywords=the+absurd+naturalist

 

Police and the “Infernal Stranger”

The recent abuses of police power in Ferguson, Phoenix, and other cities are nothing new. Police officers, in spite of their extensive training, are all too human, reflecting the values of the communities they serve.

In his brilliant satire “What Have the Police Been Doing?” (1866), Mark Twain starts out praising the San Francisco police force of his time: “Ain’t they virtuous? Don’t they take good care of the city?” But then he goes on to say, “… isn’t it shown in the fact that although many offenders of importance go unpunished, they infallibly snaffle every Chinese chicken-thief that attempts to drive his trade.”

Twain gets to the heart of the matter in recounting the case of a man accused of stealing some flour sacks who, after being bashed in the skull, was locked up in a jail cell and allowed to die overnight unattended by a doctor. “Why shouldn’t the jailor do so? Why certainly—why shouldn’t he—the man was an infernal stranger. He had no vote. Besides, had not a gentleman just said he stole some flour sacks? Ah, and if he stole some flour sacks, did he not deliberately put himself outside the pale of humanity and Christian sympathy by that hellish act? I think so.”

Written almost 150 years ago, Twain’s words are still eerily relevant. When police react to a suspect as some infernal other, someone less than human, we lose something of ourselves.

All Twain quotes are from Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852-1890, published by Library of America in 1992.

 

 

 

Favorite Humorous Stories

Picture1This was going to be a top ten list of my favorite humorous stories that have influenced me the most as a writer. But I got into a nasty argument with myself about which ones to include. Since I seldom win these arguments, I quickly conceded defeat. So I decided to write this instead as a series of installments, each focusing on one writer. That way I can live with myself and don’t have to choose just one story.

Where to begin? For me that’s easy. From early on I was always attracted to writers who could not only set me to convulsive laughter, but make me wonder how in the hell they did that. Thurber was one of my earliest heroes. For sheer range of wackiness and imagination he had few equals. And his stories still hold up well today.

Three of his stories immediately come to mind. I think my favorite is “The Night the Bed Fell,” from his autobiographical book My Life and Hard Times. I do think “autobiography” is a stretch when applied to these stories. It is hard to believe that anyone’s family members could be that crazy, or that events described by the author could have really happened that way. No matter. The stories are pure fun. In fact, they inspired me to write my novel The Family That Wasn’ta middle grade fantasy about a boy who finds his family so impossibly crazy that he writes them out of his life by imagining a new perfect family in which he suddenly finds himself living.

A close second is the story “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox,” from Thurber’s later book The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze. I love the way this story starts, as if everything is perfectly normal in General Grant’s camp: “The morning of the ninth of April, 1865, dawned beautifully. General Meade was up with the first streaks of crimson in the eastern sky.” But history is about to be turned on its head. I wonder how many people, after reading this story, have gone to the Internet seeking information about Grant’s drinking problems. It’s a perfect little gem of alternative history as only Thurber could imagine it.

And how could I not include the much-anthologized “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” from the 1942 classic My WorldAnd Welcome To It. After seeing the preview for the latest movie version of this story, all I can say is, save yourself the agony and read the story instead. There’s a good reason it’s been published in so many collections. Not only is it laugh out loud funny, but it’s perfectly constructed in every detail and guaranteed to make a writer despair of ever being able to write a story like that. Now that’s a good role model! 

You can find all of these stories in the recent collection Writings and Drawings by James Thurber, with selections by Garrison Keillor, published in 1996 by Library of America. 

I’d love to hear comments on your favorite humorous stories.