The Last Word

LWON happens. There’s no stopping us! Here’s what we gave our dear readers last week:

Women speaking to groups get interrupted. A lot. Rose wrote up some advice on how to make sure, in a radio interview, that your girly voice is heard.

Helen has seen U2 in concert 12 times, though she’s never marked her appreciation with a tattoo. Others have, though, and in Helen’s redux some researchers took a look at these varied stamps of fandom.

Sarah gave us the song of the hermit thrush, which it turns out is more than just a pretty melody. It is packed with geographic information if you know how to listen closely.

Ann looked back (and invites us to do the same) at what appear to be ‘snapshots’ by guest poster Steve Smith but that aren’t so simple after all. Each one is filled with stories—kind of like the hermit thrush’s song (see above).

And Michelle rounded out the week with a redux that Ann perfectly described this way: Mary Shelley, a cold summer, Frankenstein, famine, innovations, the creation of the state, and Mt. Tamboro: all aspects of the same things, says Michelle.


Image by Star Mama.

Redux: Dr. Frankenstein’s Climate


Two hundred and one years ago today, a young writer began a very famous story. Every year, it gets a little more relevant.

Between two and three o’clock in the morning on June 16, 1816, during a restless night in a villa on Lake Geneva, eighteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin had a waking dream. As the moon shone through the shutters of her room, she remembered, “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life …”

Over the next fourteen months, Godwin—later Mary Shelley—wrote her vision into life. The pale student became Victor Frankenstein, the hideous phantasm became his tortured creature, and Godwin became the author of the novel Frankenstein, published in 1818 and in print ever since.

Famously, Godwin’s inspiration arrived after she and her companions, who had spent most of their Swiss holiday trapped inside by extraordinarily cold, rainy weather, decided to entertain themselves with a ghost-story-writing contest. Lord Byron—already a noted poet and notorious cad—wrote a fragment about a dying explorer. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Godwin’s lover and future husband, wrote a poem about atheism. Byron’s physician, William Polidori, wrote a poem about a vampire, which he later published under Byron’s name (and which, some argue, birthed the modern sexy-vampire story). The teenaged Mary Godwin outdid them all, creating both the first major work of science fiction and a story that disturbs us still.

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Redux Because This Is Better Than What I Was Going to Write

I had dinner the other night with, among others, a graphic designer.  He said he liked looking at contemporary photographs but to be honest, he didn’t know why he liked looking at them.  He knew they were better than snapshots, he said, but he didn’t know why they were.

I’m certainly the last person to have an answer to that.  But I remembered this guest post by Steve Smith, one of those contemporary photographers whose pictures look like somebody just sort of took them — no moody lighting, no startling contrasts, no obvious lines, just black and white pictures of people doing stuff.  When I ran Smith’s post, I was most interested in the stories behind the pictures because that’s the kind of person I am, a story-person.  And Smith graciously complied with a story that is sweet and surprising, and writing that’s direct and clean and personal. But after my friend the graphic designer asked his question, I went back and looked at Smith’s photos again.

I recommend you do this too.  I hadn’t seen how much was going on in them, how they seem mundane and still, but how full of movement they are.  Every single person in every single photo is intent on being his or her very own self, going on his or her own private trajectory. You know what every single one of them is thinking. You could write thought-balloons over their heads.  You know these people.

But also you don’t understand them.  And you have a million questions.  Why are the two listening women dressed alike, with their satchels uncomfortably across their fronts? How did the guy hurt his hand? And what’s under his other arm?  He’s talking friendly but the listening woman looks skeptical. Why are guys in the back having such fun?  Why, in what is clearly a white-peoples’ world, is one of those guys darkish? let alone the black woman sitting by herself? Where are they? Is it an airport? What in heaven’s name is that hot air balloon doing bobbing around up there?

And how does he DO that?  Have fun.  But it’s a little unsettling.


Photo by Steven Smith, not included in the original post.

Not all stories are words, not all maps are pictures

You know those sounds that slip across the senses until they settle, in the brain, on an association entirely unrelated to their maker? Those sounds that seem to almost synesthetically transform one thing into another? The way noise can be brilliant, or color evokes flavor, or a smell touches old dreams?

An unspectacular-looking, fist-sized bird called a hermit thrush makes a sound like that, when it sings. Its call is a variable set of layered chimings – like what water would be, if made into a bird, if you asked it to sing with a narrow feather-muffled throat instead of its own mud-and-cobble one.

Listen to this call for a moment, here. Consider that it has been transcribed as a sort of prayer: “Oh, holy holy, ah, purity purity eeh, sweetly sweetly.” I first remember hearing it in a sun-slanted aspen forest in Colorado, on my way up to a 13,000-foot pass and a hotspring on the other side. It seemed to descend through the glowing boles at the same stepped angle as the light. To come from all directions. To touch the surrounding talus fields and cliffs with little hands. It so filled me with listening silence that for years since, I have thought of tattooing a sound spectrogram of that song on my skin, to remind me of the places where I feel most at home in it.

Now listen to the song slowed, here: You will begin to notice the split in the hermit thrush’s voice, two notes carried by the dual voicebox that birds share, called a syrinx. Drawn out, his call becomes something that feels deeply Cretaceous, a dinosaur warbling through the jungle. Calling threat to his rivals, calling out his territory, calling plaintively for love.

A bird’s voice does all of that. It can also reveal other things: Where he is from, whether he is well or sick, whether he has been exposed to pollutants like PCBs and Bisphenol-A. And hermit thrush voices, it turns out, may also contain stories about the ancient movements of landscape and climate, and how these shape lives. Continue reading

Redux: U2 Gets Onto People’s Skin

U2 is touring again, and I saw them last week for the 12th time, so I thought now would be a good time to rerun this post from 2015 about a research project on U2-themed tattoos. Get your concert tickets here

Pat from Rogers, Arkansas

Once upon a time, I was a fan of bands that gave me some kind of alternative cred. I have been to a ton of They Might Be Giants concerts, which places me solidly in the ranks of the nerds. I spent many years in love with R.E.M. and have listened to all of their albums back to back in day-long binges, at least three times. That indicates a mild level of ’90s alternativeness—if somewhat less alternativeness than my cooler friends, who wrote FUGAZI on their notebooks or formed their own riot grrrl bands.

But about 10 years ago I got it in my head to go to a U2 concert. My friend Kate seemed to think they were worth seeing a bunch of times, and she’s got pretty good taste, plus I liked most of the U2 songs I knew, so I arranged to make a trip to visit friends in Brazil at a time when the band was touring there. After my first show, at São Paulo’s massive Morumbi soccer stadium, I was hooked.

I’ve seen the band nine times now. While I have always enjoyed the heck out of an R.E.M. or TMBG show, U2 concerts make me shriek and jump up and down and often cry, which, as anyone who knows me will attest, is not my everyday way of interacting with the world.

So what does U2 fandom say about me? What does it mean that the band that I will cross oceans to see live is also one of the world’s biggest rock bands?

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What I Learned About Interruption from Talk Radio

I grew up listening to a lot of talk radio, thanks to a childhood spent in the car driving from this soccer tournament in rural Connecticut to that one in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania, all while listening to Mike and the Mad Dog, or Dr. Laura, or Opie and Anthony. I didn’t think it would do me much good, all this talk radio. And a lot of it probably did active harm. I’m still unlearning racist, classist, sexist jokes and phrases that have embedded themselves into my brain after hours of these shows. But there is one arena in which this kind of radio made me supremely prepared: talking to men. Or, more precisely, not letting men talk over me.

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Listening to the Lost Boys

Last Sunday afternoon, I spent a couple of hours at a right-wing “free speech” rally in downtown Portland, Oregon. I described parts of the experience in a story I wrote earlier this week, but I’m still thinking about what I heard and saw.

The rally, organized by an area group called Patriot Prayer, was held in a small park across from City Hall, and it wasn’t large—I’d guess there were a couple of hundred attendees, not counting all the curious onlookers and the journalists like myself. The park was green and shady, and during the rally, it was an oddly peaceful place. The speakers were worked up, and they worked their crowd up, but they couldn’t hope to match the energy of the thousands of counter-protesters who surrounded them, and whose chants rolled through the streets like waves. The park, protected by a solid cordon of police in riot gear, felt like a tiny island of quiet in a stormy sea, sparsely populated by an isolated tribe.

I listened to the inhabitants of that island, and here’s what I heard: Praise for patriotism, for love, and for God. Praise for free speech. Praise for the police. Praise for one another, especially for their courage in gathering in the heart of liberal Portland. I also heard half-hearted calls for restraint (“Please don’t beat up anybody on your way out of here,” organizer Joey Gibson said in closing) and full-throated calls for violence (“I’ve heard live rounds work better!” one man yelled at the police as they used stun grenades to herd a group of counter-protesters away from the park). Over and over again, I heard bitterness and anger toward the counter-protesters and the left in general, and toward anyone who had labeled the islanders as racists or fascists or Nazis—anyone who had somehow made them feel ashamed of being conservatives, or white people, or Christians, or men. Continue reading

Perspective, Perhaps

Last week, according to some real news, Earth got a wave hello from far away, from some-3-billion-year-old vibrations that were set off when two black holes smashed into each other. (Really? There’s not room for both of you up there?) According to the New York Times, the collision—reported by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, which felt the signal—resulted in “a pit of infinitely deep darkness weighing as much as 49 suns.” And this is old hat, because such gravitational waves have reached Earth two other times just in the last couple of years. Albert Einstein, that guy with the hair and the mustache, had predicted they’d come, after he figured out that gravity is just a warping of spacetime.

Though my mind exploded, I was relieved to read about the space-time crash and its resulting wave. Because just before that I had read about Donald Trump’s latest hideous gaffe/idiocy/embarrassment/middlefingertotheworld (the “I want to be in front” shove? Covfefe? Paris Accord pullout? Bullying of London mayor? So many to choose from that I can’t even pick a link to include, so here’s a video of funny cats). And I felt sick inside and worried for the future. I was, as I often am these days, angry and sad and baffled that it’s come to this.

After noticing the black-hole headline and clawing through the story’s first paragraph, though, I began thinking about the fact that I don’t even know how to think about this fact. I like pictures of animals hugging. My brain simply doesn’t do the gymnastics needed to wrap my head around holes in the universe that run into each other (isn’t a hole a lack of something? How can two lack of somethings collide?) and pulses traveling for billions of years that rattle an observatory in the U.S. and that scientists can point to and say, hey, there are those vibrations we’ve been waiting for! Einstein was right!

It made me try to imagine how I, were I this space-time bump in the night, might have signaled the Earth.

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