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

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

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.