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Monthly Archives: January 2014

I’ve been messing around with LaTeX for some time now, but I was faced with a new challenge yesterday when I had to typeset a book of poetic conversation between two different authors. One poet’s work needed to be set on the left page and the other’s on the right. The solution seemed to be the eledpar package, which is an extension of the eledmac package. Eledmac allows users to create critical editions of a text, and eledpar allows for the creation of parallel texts, either in columns on a single page or on facing pages, just what I needed.

The initial document set-up wasn’t too difficult, and I soon had the text appearing where I wanted it, but then I ran into difficulty with the poetry itself.  For previous books I have been using specific packages to help me set poetry, whereas eledmac provides its own functions for setting poetry that are based on edstanza, some of which seem to conflict with the poetry packages I use.  The result was that I spent a fair bit of frustration time yesterday afternoon.

While I was engaged with that problem, my eldest son was at the other computer on Kahn Academy’s site working on some programming problems of his own.  He is learning to program in processing.js, which both fascinates and frustrates him in equal measure, much as LaTeX fascinates and frustrates me.

“Dad,” he said at one point, “the problem is that you can’t even make one mistake,” which hits on the frustration of programming exactly, even if it isn’t strictly true.  After all, the editor that he uses is pretty good at guessing where his errors are and telling him what he needs to do to fix his code, and ShareLaTeX, the online editor that I use, can compile anything but the most egregious errors.  His point, however, is absolutely accurate.  The frustration of programming, especially for someone like me, who is used to manipulating language with a fair degree of creativity and flexibility, is that one wrong line of code can break the whole thing.

If I miss a period in a short story, it will print just the same.  My reader might not even notice.  If I miss a comma, there could be some discussion about whether it needs to be included at all.  If I cut a sentence or even a paragraph more or less, everything will likely still read properly.  If I miss a single operand in my code, however, it may not compile, and if I’m not sure how to fix my error, it won’t be as easy as putting in a period.  I may need to go hunting through a manual or harass someone who knows better or post a question on Stack Exchange.  It could take me all afternoon, and the answer will probably be something depressingly simple.

My son’s problem was of exactly that kind.  He had forgotten to change his fill colour, so his new shape had blended into the background image and seemed not to have been rendered at all.  It took only a few seconds to fix, and then he said, “The good thing about computers is that you know if it’s right,” and this is true too.  The reward of programming is having it work and knowing that you got it right.

No matter how many times I revise a short story, I’m never quite sure I’ve got it right (in fact, with that sort of writing, I’m convinced that there’s no such thing as getting right), but I always know when the code compiles the way it should, and there is a unique satisfaction in this.  It’s not a satisfaction sufficient to make me program more seriously, but it was sufficient, at least at that moment, for me to share it with my son, a connection that I never expected, and I am starting to see why some people become addicted.

 

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I was reading in the bar one night, reading Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories, if you’re interested to know, and this guy sat down beside me. He was wearing a winter coat and a heavy backpack, neither of which he took off, so he had to sit on the front edge of the stool to keep from falling backward.

“What can I get you?” asked the bartender.

“One of those,” he said, pointing to the tap nearest him, his words noticeably slurred. “Actually, make it two.”

The bartender had already begun pouring the first. “Who’s the other one for?” she asked.

“For my friend in the corner there.” He jerked his head back in no particular direction.

“What friend?”

“The blonde girl.”

“I don’t see any blonde girl.” The bartender gave him his first pint. “I’m just going to pour you the one, and I’ll get you to pay for it now.”

“No tab?”

“No tab. That’s five-fifty.”

“Well,” he said, “No tab, then no tip.” He laid a five and two quarters on the bar, snapping the coins against the wood. I could see a fair amount of cash showing when he opened his wallet – at least a couple of fifties and a whole wad of twenties. “Can I see menu,” he asked, but the words were unrecognizably slurred.

“Excuse me?” the bartender said.

“Ah men-you,” he said, drawing out all the vowels.

She placed one in front of him. He flipped it open with an awkward flourish, almost hitting me with his elbow, scanned down the page with intent.

“Excuse me,” he said after a minute, and he did nudge my elbow now. “Do you want to split a burger?”

“Um… no,” I said. “I’ve got some wings coming.” He looked offended. “Thanks for asking though,” I said. “The burgers here are really good.”

He flagged the bartender. “Could I order half a burger?” he asked.

She looked confused. “Half?”

“Yeah. Half a burger. I’m not spending twelve bucks on a burger.”

“No,” she said. “They don’t come as halves.”

“Well, could I just get the burger? No fries or salad?”

“Sure.”

“How much would that be?”

“Twelve dollars.”

“But it’s just the burger.”

“And the burger is twelve dollars. Do you want it or not?”

“Fine. I’ll have the burger.”

“With fries and salad or without?”

“With, of course. I’m getting my twelve dollars’ worth.” He slid the menu down the bar and finished the rest of his pint. “And can I get another beer?”

“Sure. That’s seventeen-fifty all together.”

He put a twenty on the bar. “I want two-fifty change,” he said. “No tab, no tip.”

“I heard you the first time,” she said. She handed him his change.

“Tell the kitchen to put a hurry on it. I’m starving.”

“Sure. I’ll tell them that the no tip guy needs it right away.”

“Thanks,” he said.

A waitress arrived with my wings. They were gone by the time she returned with the no tip guy’s burger.

“Hey,” he said to me as she put the plate down, “It’s not too late to get some of this. I’ll sell you half this burger for six bucks.”

I shook my head and pointed to the pile of bones on my own plate. “Thanks,” I said, “but I just ate.”

He shrugged, then took his fork from his paper napkin and began banging it on his almost empty pint glass. The room hushed, looking for the source of the noise. “Attention,” he said. “I’m selling half my burger for six bucks. You can have half the fries and salad too. Just six bucks.” He surveyed the room expectantly, but there was no response, only a few chuckles before people returned to their conversations.

The no tip guy stood by his chair, the plate still proffered, but no one was looking at him anymore. He put the plate on the bar and sat again. “What’s the matter with people?” he said. “Twelve bucks for a burger.” He still made no move to eat it. “Excuse me,” he said to the bartender. “Can I get another pint?”

“Five-fifty,” she said.

“Start me a tab?” he asked.

“No tab.”

“No tab, no tip,” he said, and he put exact change on the bar. He took a bite as she poured, and then he said it again, his words muffled both by alcohol and by a mouth full of food, “No tab, no tip.”

“And a lemon,” she said, but she pronounced `lemon’ with a bad French accent, and she puckered her lips on the last syllable, held them there as the bartender fixed the citrus wedge to the edge of the glass. Her lips were something to love, but they were painted and red, had become the kind of lips that are for show, for being seen at a distance, not for kissing, lest their puckered, painted redness be ruined, and what he wanted most was to take the napkin from the bar, the one that had come with his food, and he wanted to wipe her lips, to show her what they were.

For my wife, as always.

Trace

I trace her profile with my fingertip
To ink her image on the world’s pale skin
So it will bear her memory graven deep
Long after I can trace her face no more.

I came to Nicholas Ruddock’s The Parabolist later than I should have, not only because I ignored several people who recommended it to me when it was first published in 2010, but also because I promised and failed to read it after I had the pleasure of talking with Nicholas in a pub about a year ago. This past fall, however, when Nicholas sat on Vocamus Press‘s The Future of Publishing panel, I decided that I had to right this particular wrong, which I did over Christmas.

The premise of the novel is that a young Mexican poet, someone who is not the writer Roberto Bolano but who resembles the literary fictions that Bolano created of himself in his own novels, comes to Canada in 1975 and stumbles into teaching poetry to a class of University of Toronto medical students. A group of these students befriend their new teacher and begin to discover themselves differently through him.

Ruddock tells the story in short sections, alternating his attention between the students, their teacher, and other characters as well. Each of these lives is connected more or less strongly by a single event that lies at the heart of the story — the rape and intended murder of a young woman who is rescued by the young poetry teacher. Each character’s story is eventually revealed to flow through or from this event, though they are not always themselves even aware of its influence.

It seems to me that there are two interpretive keys to the way the novel gradually uncovers the significance of this single event. The first is found in one of the novel’s primary threads, where two of the medical students work together in dissection class to cut away the layers of their cadaver until it is nothing more than an untidily fleshed skeleton. As they work, they find themselves in a grisly kind of intimacy with the body, aware that it is no longer a person but still unable to treat it wholly as a corpse, as when they peel the face away but leave the lips as a last sign of humanity.

The second interpretive key is found in the scene where one of the medical students goes north to surprise his married lover in the boathouse of her cottage in the middle of the night. As he comes to her in the darkness, he begins to kiss along her body, beginning at the feet, mentally naming the muscles and ligaments as he goes, a kind of erotic dissection mirroring the clinical dissections he has been performing in class. He soon realizes, however, that the woman he is kissing, who is willingly accepting his kisses, is not his lover at all, and he is forced to flee.

These two dissections, the clinical and the erotic, one laid over the other, provide a figure for the novel as a whole, for the way it proceeds. It takes as its cadaver the moment of rape and attempted murder, peeling back the flesh of this moment layer by layer, exposing the stories that intersect in it as if they are the musculature and ligaments, getting down to the bone, not to a tidy classroom skeleton, but to whatever bloody bits remain on the dissection table after the procedure is complete. Yet, the dissection of this moment, of what lies beneath its surface, is not only clinical, it is also erotic, the equivalent of tracing its musculature with kisses, of discovering the body by touch and by taste, by passion, even if, in both forms of dissection, we always fall short of definitive knowledge, always fail to know this person whose lips we have left as a mark of humanity, this person who we thought was our lover but now know is not.

Ruddock’s novel is, in both of these senses, a dissection, a clinical and yet erotic exploration of the complex stories that make up any given moment, but an exploration that must always, in the end, admit incompletion, must admit that neither science nor passion is truly capable of comprehending story, not even one moment of story, but that story is nevertheless, even and especially for this reason, worth telling.

The server that has been hosting this blog for the past many years has recently died of complications associated with old age. Rather than find a new host, I have decided just to transplant it to wordpress.com. A few of the most recent posts were lost during the operation, but hopefully I can reconstruct them with a little plastic surgery.

Also, since wordpress.com does not support the theme that I have been using, I needed to give the blog a facelift at the same time. Some of you have mentioned in the past that you were tired of looking at the same old features, so hopefully this new face is an improvement. I won’t likely change it up again for another half-decade.

UPDATE – The plastic surgery was successful.  All the bits should now be in their proper places.

UPDATE – It has been brought to my attention that all of the internal links are now broken, as I should have realized myself, but I don’t exactly have the time or the energy to update better than six years of links at the moment, so I will likely just work on it here and there as I get the chance. If you are looking for a particular link, just let me know.