Sunday, December 20, 2009

Skipping the Light Fandango on My Anniversary

So looking back, what did you learn from the time with The Commitments, Jimmy?

That's a tricky question, Terry. But as I always say: We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels 'cross the floor. I was feeling kind of seasick, but the crowd called out for more.

That's very profound, Jimmy. What does it mean?

I'm fucked if I know, Terry!

~ This is dialogue from a closing scene in the movie The Commitments in which fictional character Jimmy Rabitte, who brought the group The Commitments together which has now fallen apart, does both parts of a pretend interview with Terry Wogan, an actual long-time Irish radio and television interviewer. (Jonas Söderström has a wonderful analysis of the inclusion in the movie of Procol Harum’s song "A Whiter Shade of Pale" which is not in Roddy Doyle’s novel. Jimmy’s lines beginning with “We skipped the light fandango,” are from the song.)

A year ago today I posted the initial entry in this blog – Fossils and Other Living Things. Today’s post is a salute to the year gone by which turned out to be nothing like what I imagined it would be. A posting on finding fossils in the men’s room at the National Gallery of Art – who knew? Perhaps the best way to lay out some of my thoughts on this anniversary is to provide the transcript of the recent interview about my blog that never ran on Fresh Air, the National Public Radio show hosted by Terry Gross. (I’m not sure why it never ran, though I’ve been told it’s obvious.)


Terry Gross (TG): This is Fresh Air. I’m Terry Gross. We’ve been exploring the so-called blogosphere, the world of blogging and the people who inhabit it. After a lifetime’s fascination with fossils, remnants of life which can predate human history by millions of years, my next guest, Tony Edger, in December 2008, launched a blog called Fossils and Other Living Things. His blog is a curious blend of paleontological and personal reflection, though he swings his brush widely, touching on biology, geology, astronomy, Paul Cézanne, Bruce Cockburn, you get the idea. He calls himself an amateur at paleontology and life. Welcome, Tony Edger. I have to ask, what made you think you could add anything meaningful to the blogosphere? I mean, doesn’t it turn out you’re not breaking new ground and some of the blogs written by practicing scientists and science writers actually have readers?

Tony Edger (TE): To quote Rick in Casablanca, I was misinformed.

TG: Misinformed? Um, about what?

TE: What was the question?

TG: [laughter] I’m intrigued by the idea of being an amateur at life. I want to ask, what do you mean by that?

TE: Maybe it’s a bit self-deprecating, but I think I’m still a student of life, just as I am a beginning student of paleontology and all of the other sciences that I have the nerve to write about. Plus . . . I’m not getting paid to live my life which, I guess, puts me in the amateur ranks. You, too.

TG: A scientist who has appeared several times in your blog is the 19th Century Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz. Why? What do you find so interesting about him?

TE: Well, Terry, he’s a tragic figure, a fat supremely egotistical visionary who quit doing real science and, instead, spent his energy on fund raising, politics, and management. Life and other things get in the way of science. Classic. Some thought ill of him for abandoning his first wife and children in Europe when he came to America in the 1840s. For many, his worst sin was that he remained a committed creationist, bedeviled by Darwin. What’s not to like?

TG: Tell us a little of way you go about writing your blog. Where do your ideas come from? What is, um, the process?

TE: Pretty messy. When I hunt for fossils, I try to be as aware as possible. The ethicist William F. May called it an “openness to the unbidden.” In the same way, openness is key for writing a blog. You’ve got to be ready because you never know when the bell might toll or an idea might hit. For instance, on the train trip up here to Philadelphia for this interview, I was reading A Study in Scarlet and . . . .

TG: That’s the Sherlock Holmes adventure by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

TE: . . . yes, Terry, that’s right. Well, in the novel, Holmes returns from a concert and asks Watson if he remembers what Darwin said about music and proceeds to tell him. Sitting on the train and reading that, I was brought up short. There it was, a possible blog topic, unbidden it had jumped out at me. Did what Holmes say about Darwin come close to what Darwin actually said? Does today's science support Darwin on music? Does Darwin show up in any of the other Holmes stories? What was Conan Doyle’s stance on evolution? Cascading questions.

TG: That’s really interesting. I mean, I mean, does it make a difference that you’re a trained historian?

TE: [laughter] How did you find that out?

TG: [laughter] Your Facebook page.

TE: [laughter] Sorry, I don’t have one.

TG: I could have sworn.

TE: You were misinformed.

TG: [laughter] Okay. I have to try to ask it again. Why are you writing a blog?

TE: Because I’m not very good at finding fossils? [laughter]

TG: On June 7 of this year, the New York Times ran a piece on blogging. It was called, um, “Blogs Falling in an Empty Forest.” [laughter] That’s a wonderful title. Let me read a bit of it. “[M]any people start blogs with lofty aspirations – to build an audience and leave their day job, to land a book deal, or simply to share their genius with the world.” Are any of those the reasons you began blogging?

TE: That’s a tricky question, Terry. A “yes” makes me out to be grossly deluded, no pun intended.

TG: [laughter]

TE: A “no” means I have to follow up with a different reason. It’s “no.” And let’s leave it at wanting the discipline of writing and adding some rigor to my thinking about all of the neat science I am exploring in my distracted way.

TG: Then, does . . . .

TE: I’m . . . .

TG: Go ahead.

TE: I’m the writer John Cheever getting up, dressing, and leaving his apartment to go to work every morning, and then going down to a small room in the basement of his apartment building to write short stories. Couldn’t he have just stayed in his pajamas and written in his living room? No. Of course not. I think he needed the discipline and the charade. Though I have to point out, before he began his writing each day, he did strip down to his boxers.

TG: Um, are you really comparing yourself to John Cheever?

TE: Yeah, Terry, I am. Except for the writing, the boxers, and the other stuff.

TG: The article goes on to say, “Getting started is easy, since all it takes to maintain a blog is a little time and inspiration. So why do blogs have a higher failure rate than restaurants?” The article notes that in 2008, 95 percent of all blogs had not been updated in 4 months, so, they were, and I’m reading from the article again, “essentially abandoned, left to lie fallow on the Web, where they become public remnants of a dream – or at least an ambition – unfulfilled.” That’s so sad.

TE: Wait, wait. The article writer confused getting it started with what you need to keep it going. The easy part is the mechanical or technical part of getting a blog up and running, but no way the “little time and inspiration” part is easy. It’s not just once but continuous. That’s the hard part, finding the time and being moved enough to keep it alive. You have to feed the beast. Hey, I’ve gotta be pleased that my blog is in that rare 5 percent with a beating heart.

TG: Which of your blog postings has attracted the most attention and were you surprised by it?

TE: Terry, the phrase “most attention” is a loaded one. Sort of implies that there’s more than the proverbial audience of one for any of the posts. That aside, there is one that once in awhile folks comment on. The one about “Charlie Darwin,” a song by the group Low Anthem, with lyrics that defy analysis. I made a stab at interpreting it and gave up. People periodically come across my take and react.

TG: Does that surprise you?

TE: Well, it’s one of my few posts that touch on popular culture. What can I say, Terry?

TG: I sense that you're reluctant to share much of your personal history. I have to ask, why is that? I mean, is there a difference between your blogging persona and your real, in quotes, persona?

TE: A dopplegänger.

TG: What?

TE: I read Billy Collins sometimes. And . . .

TG: The poet Billy Collins who was the Poet Laureate of the United States.

TE: Uh, yeah, that’s right, Terry. Collins has a poem that captures my blogging experience. I have memorized some of it. It’s called, “I Go Back to the House for a Book.”

TG: Wow, I know that poem. It’s a wonderful poem.

TE: Here’s the first stanza of it.

I turn around on the gravel
and go back to the house for a book,
something to read at the doctor's office,
and while I am inside, running the finger
of inquisition along a shelf,
another me that did not bother
to go back to the house for a book
heads out on his own,
rolls down the driveway,
and swings left toward town,
a ghost in his ghost car,
another knot in the string of time,
a good three minutes ahead of me -
a spacing that will now continue
for the rest of my life.

TG: [laughter] It’s so good. Is there . . . um, I mean, why do you think that poem applies?

TE: I guess I’m the me that went for the book, the one who wrote the blog. The other persona didn’t and that means a disconnect of some sort. It’s made all the difference, the connection and the pleasure with science are that much stronger for me as the blogger. And I skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels 'cross the floor.

TG: What?

TE: I have to leave now. I have a blog to write.

[unidentified noises]

TG: Wait, I have more questions.

[Sounds of a door opening and closing]

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