Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Frogs of Australia: End of Ramble in the Southern Hemisphere

Growling Grass Frog (Litoria raniformis)
Since I'm leaving Australia in a few hours for wintry latitudes, hoping to some day return, I figured this might be a good time to resurrect a few excerpts from the "self-interview" that The Nervous Breakdown asked me to write almost exactly a year ago (you'll see why). I've been asked a few times since arriving down under to explain why it is I love Melville's novel so, and I welcome that question, challenging as it can be to answer quickly, and I swung at it a few different ways. Here's another, slightly longer swing:
... The title. What were you thinking? I mean, Moby-Dick is this epic masterpiece, and you, my friend, whatever you are, are no Herman Melville.
It started as a kind of joke. I chose the title before I wrote a single word, which is unusual. Once I committed to it, I had to take the joke seriously. I knew that my voyage had to be a grand one. I often wished that for my first book I’d chosen a smaller project, a nice little monograph of an essay on oh, I don’t know, the pleasures and perils of bicycling in New York. But I love Moby-Dick, love the so-called informational chapters as well as the action sequences. I think most of all I love the dynamics in Melville’s prose, the swells and troughs, the storms and calms, how it mixes the high and the low, the philosophical and the naughty. I used to tell my students to look out for the fart joke in chapter 1, “Loomings,” (hint, it has to do with the pythagorean maxim). Then, too, Ishmael is an insular Manhatto, like I was, a former schoolteacher as I was. I couldn’t resist. I carried a tattered, annotated copy around with me during my travels and kept it on my desk and sought inspiration in its pages. It sustained as well as daunted me. Frankly, I’d almost prefer to talk about Melville’s book than mine.
And here's the bit that made me think of this now:
There’s much about fatherhood and childhood in the book. One of your two sons even turns up as a kind of recurring character. What does he want to be when he grows up? 
His plans keep changing, of course. Recently, he’s decided to be the host of a televised cooking show. But once he told me that he was going to be a scientist so that he can go to Antarctica and bring things back for me and his mother. Another time, god help him, he said he wanted to be “a papa and a writer.” He even had a great book title picked out. 
What was it? 
The Frogs of Australia.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Duckies Sighted ... in the London Underground

Earlier this week, on my way to Heathrow, where I was to catch a plane to Australia to attend the Perth Writers Festival,  I noticed this ad in a London underground station. The legend lives on.

The multinational flotilla above was brought to you by the same British cell phone company that a couple years ago gave us duckies going cheerfully and fictitiously where explorers had gone disastrously before. (Forgive the product placement, which does not imply endorsement of O2's product, which for all I know is vastly inferior to their adverts, or vastly superior; I'm ignorant of and therefore agnostic on the quality of O2, is all I'm saying.)

There was also a television campaign that began with this:

And continued with this:

And there were other spots, but you get the gist.

Friday, February 24, 2012

To Clarify: Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Gyres

In news stories about the bath toys lost at sea, or about the so-called garbage patch, one occasionally encounters some confusion about oceanic gyres--altogether understandable confusion because the ocean is a strange place and its currents are complicated, chaotic even. The general as opposed to oceanographic sense of "gyre" is the sense in which Yeats famously used it in "The Second Coming"--
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold...
--a circular or spiraling motion or form. The oceanographic sense of the word "gyre" is narrower. In oceanography, a gyre is a circuit of major currents. Or to be a bit eye-crossingly precise about it, you'd say a gyre is a circuit of major wind-driven surface currents that orbit the ocean basins. The Gulf Stream, for instance, is a major surface current and it describes one arc of a gyre--the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre, which, simplified by cartographers at NASA, looks like this:

A gyre is not a "garbage patch." Nor is a gyre by definition a current that collects floating debris. That said, there are currents in the five largest gyres--the subtropical gyres, which include the North Atlantic one pictured above--that do have the tendency to collect floating debris. Such currents create what oceanographers call "convergence zones." Convergence zones lie within gyres, but they are not the same thing as gyres. The most famous one is--take a breath--the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. You can see why people tend to prefer the somewhat misleading yet far catchier term "garbage patch." Here, on the map that appears at the front of Moby-Duck, is the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone:

Thursday, February 23, 2012

So it turns out traveling from London to Perth, Australia, is about as miserable as imagined. From London to Dubai, I had the middle seat, from Dubai to Perth I had it again. Dubai to Perth was the long stretch. To my left an Iranian Babushka who needed her armrests, to my right a Pakistani dude who needed his--he fell asleep before the plane took off. And thus over the course of about 20 hours I ate my several tinfoiled cartridges of poached chicken as if conducting dissections, elbows in. And yet, we became friends, we three. The Iranian Babushka who spoke no English made clear via semiotics that she was visiting her son. She also made clear her pride, "P-H-D. University of Sydney. Engineering!"

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

To London! With Snail and Spit.

Traveling with small children is not easy, especially if one of them--the six year old--has strep. But The One Recovering From Strep is also The One Who Is Beside Himself With Anticipation That He Will Be Traveling to London, England, Tomorrow Night. This is his first trip abroad. He now has a passport. So does the other one--The One Who Is Tonight Excited But Perhaps For Reasons He Does Not, Being Only Two, Understand.

We're going to London to help launch the hardcover UK edition of Moby-Duck, the inaugural title of Union Books. Its cover is pictured here.

For the last few weeks, I've been preparing six-year-old B. and two-year-old M. for their trip to London by resuscitating a bedtime tale that I first began to spin for B. back when he was a two year old. It's the tale of a squirrel named Snail, who lives in a hole in a tree in Washington Square Park. ("That's funny," M. said the other night. "'Snail' is a funny name"--for a squirrel, he meant.) Snail's best friend is a duck named Spit, who almost always goes by his full title, Spit the Bulgarian Wedding Duck.

(Long story, short version: The night the spinning of the tale began, there was a story about a Bulgarian wedding band on the radio. Spit plays the trombone, and any trombone player will therefore guess the provenance of the name Spit.)

Basically, the tale is a highly derivative remix of Milne, Graham, and Henson, but that doesn't make it any less effective as a soporific. Last weekend, Snail and Spit stowed away on a big old jet airliner bound for London. We'll be catching up with them there tomorrow evening.

Time to pack.

Monday, February 6, 2012

This Month, Moby-Duck crosses the Atlantic

This month Moby-Duck comes out in hardcover in both the UK and Spain. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., the paperback is about to appear. I'll be rambling once again all over the northern hemisphere, and I'll be visiting the southern hemisphere, too. The book tour itinerary: London, Perth, Sydney, Chicago, Santa Barbara, Boston, other U.S. cities later in March. No stops in Spain, but there is this spanking new Spanish book trailer, subtitled by the translator, Darío Giménez.