Tuesday, June 18, 2013


As a result of seeing some bindweed growing behind the Game and Parks Visitors Center at Lake McConaughy this week, I thought I'd put up some fictitious writing by a fictitious student, the main character in this book THE GINKGO, a tale of the interplay between tradition and creativity. This excerpt is from an essay she's writing in response to an assignment

And you want to know something?  They worship my tree!  They worship the ginkgo!  It’s in the exact middle of their world.  Those shoots closest to it take on its shape, coiling around it, and are thus lifted upward.  The shoots a few inches away from the ginkgo also grow upward, but they have no support, so fall back down into the general piles of stems and leaves¾ground cover, we call it.  If these vines could really talk, they’d be saying to one another:  Get closer to Ginkgo and be lifted up!  You want to know something else?  There’s bindweed growing in my vine patch below my ginkgo tree.  Bindweed.  Bindweed is like my old friend from home.  Did you know that when you led me to the ginkgo, that eventually I’d discover the bindweed?  Some people would call bindweed a vine, too.  But compared to the vine, bindweed has tendrils (I looked up the right word!).  Back home we hate bindweed.  I suspect you’ll find the reasons interesting, although I really don’t know anything about you, other than the subliminal information you send out while standing in front of the class, and the values you reveal by walking a single student through the museum, and the patience you show by listening to my tales of Carson County, and the look that crosses your face when I talk about Mindy Johannes and Terry Spindler.  All that information makes me think you’ll be interested in our reasons for hating bindweed.
            Bindweed grows anywhere.  You can’t kill it.  The tiniest shoot gives rise to a whole plant.  Try to dig some up and you find these white runners going all through the soil.  Even in the middle of a drought, you can stick a shovel into cracked ground so hard it seems like a sidewalk, then break that shovel trying to turn over a chunk, and you know what’s alive and healthy underneath?  Right.  Bindweed.  You stand there with that clod in your hand, thinking it will take a hammer to break it, and there’s a white healthy bindweed shoot coming out the side.
            You know what I did one time?  My mother was out working—make that trying to work—in the garden.  We have a big garden.  My father had brought in a bunch of topsoil from south of the river and spread it out near the house, and dug in a lot of manure, to make this garden.  It was a dry year.  The dirt was hard.  My mother was out taking care of her tomatoes.  She was chopping away at the bindweed, at its base, so that the runners choking her tomato plants would die.  But I picked up some dirt, and a piece of bindweed stem, and put them in a plastic cup.  Then I put the cup on my window sill and watered the dirt.  You see, I’ve done this bit with the sprig in the glass of water before.
            I don’t remember how long it took—days, at least, or weeks, maybe, certainly not months—but the bindweed grew up and all through the venetian blinds.  The only dirt it had was that little bit in the plastic cup.  My father came into my room and asked why I was growing that goddamn bindweed.  I told him I was curious about it, since it was such a pest.  He looked at me with a strange sort of expression, kind of a combination of sadness, and hesitancy, and something else I can’t even tonight describe.  It was almost as if he was saying to me:  I wish someone had told me it was all right to be curious about a pest when I was a child; instead, they told me to kill pests.  But my father hadn’t really told me it was okay to be curious about a pest.  In fact, in a way, I’d told him!  Maybe I only reminded him of something he already knew.  After all, this was the same man who found an elephant tooth on his father’s ranch then, by the time he grew up and had children of his own, forgot to let them go digging for giants in the sand.  Or maybe he didn’t forget.  Maybe he was just waiting until we were ready in some way.  Are these paper assignments getting me ready to hear what my father has to teach me about giants?  I hope so.
            My mother, however, was not very impressed with my bindweed.  You won’t be able to close the blinds, she said.  I told her there was nobody to see in except coyotes and insects.  And she looked at me with a funny expression, too, sort of like she was saying:  When you’re a woman, you don’t even let coyotes and insects see into your room.  I thought at the time she said that because she was afraid.  Since coming down here, I wonder whether she said it because she thought that if you’re a woman, you don’t give up your right to be completely alone at times of your own choosing.  A coyote looking in your window meant you had lost your privacy.
            Bindweed represents something that cannot be controlled.  It is insidious, lies buried beneath the surface until some random set of circumstances liberates it.  Then it goes crazy and covers even the ground cover.  It’s a grasping thing; anything with tendrils is grasping, right?  Bindweed is not like my ungrasping vine, but instead grabs at its environment.  Bindweed does everything for my little plant community that the Devil is supposed to do for my big person community.  Bindweed would go into the museum for the express purpose of rearranging its thoughts, knowing in advance that the rearrangement was not what the gardeners wanted to have happen.
            Although I know that my parents didn’t think in these terms, and to be perfectly honest with you, ‘plant community’ would never have entered my vocabulary had I not enrolled in your course, but nevertheless, I think my mother and father felt, down deep they sensed, what you’re teaching me as fact:  That there are mixtures of kinds that live together, and interact with one another, thus can be called a community.  And I think my parents sensed that the bindweed was the Devil, or at least the equivalent of the Devil.  If my parents thought in terms of devils, then the devil idea must be inherited in humans, because I sure don’t remember much talk about devils around our house.  If the idea of a devil is inherited, then humans probably don’t think a community is complete unless it has a Devil, or at least something that we can all agree is an enemy.  That’s why, if there isn’t a handy one, they make one, or even choose one from amongst themselves.  So Devils are like fence gates and other things on the ranch, i.e. stuff you need and find a way to provide.
            My father must have been fascinated by the fact that I’d brought the Devil into our house and let it grow.  Indeed, I’d brought the Devil into my bedroom.  Even though I was (and still am) his daughter, something even far deeper than his sense of good and evil took control of him, something far more primal, and he was fascinated by a woman who would make a companion of the Devil.  And my mother, too, sensed that the bindweed was the dark face of evil.  And to her there was nothing more evil than to let the coyotes and insects see you in your bedroom.  Or, for that matter, to let anything see into your room.  Although it never occurred to me at the time, my pact with the Devil Bindweed, which grew all through my venetian blinds, allowed me to see out.  My blinds were opened.  I could look out any time and see the coyotes and insects.  In fact, there were some moonlight nights when I actually watched the coyotes run across our pasture.  Their tails were flying and they looked like they were having a great time.  Now I realize that my mother and I were looking at the same situation in two totally different ways, and neither of us knew it at the time.

(THE GINKGO is available as a beautiful trade paperback from createspace, and also on kindle, nook, smashwords, and other e-readers. It should be required reading in English courses [in my humble and totally biased opinion!])

Sunday, June 16, 2013

For Father's Day, an excerpt from the Oklahoma book

5. Norman
A quarry has been opened . . . and from it a soft lime is taken for use as fertilizer and chicken feed
—J. J. Galloway and S. G. Wissler
The slightly yellowed pages are bound with a brown-orange heavy card stock cover held together with three brass fasteners that can be slipped through holes then bent back to prevent them from falling out. You can still buy these kinds of binders, and these kinds of fasteners, in college bookstores, but this one was obviously purchased in the 1930s because of the student’s name inside. The course is Zoology 1 lab, section 3, an introduction to animals, mainly invertebrates because most animals are invertebrates—clams, oysters, crayfish, earthworms—plus the requisite vertebrate, a frog, of course—and taken during a fall semester. This lab notebook was graded four times. On October 12, it received an A-; on November 8, November 28, and December 22, an A each time. A final grade on the whole notebook was A. Some time between Christmas and three days prior, in 1932, someone studied this notebook very carefully and gave it the highest grade possible.
There are no obvious erasure marks on any of the drawings in this notebook. The lines are all exceedingly fine, with no trace of wobble, no smudge, and no indication—as is so often the case with students’ pencil sketches—that the artist was plagued by any sense of uncertainty. He knew exactly how a frog’s liver lay exposed, exactly how a starfish ovary looked, laid out from the clean cut along an ambulacral groove, for these pictures were obviously made directly from specimens. The number five drawing pencil was sharpened with a knife until the lead lay exposed, bare, for a half inch. The lead itself was then filed to a needle-like point, probably with an emery board. He drew until the lead was somewhat dull, until the line itself stimulated some sense of imperfection, or violated intent, when it was again filed to its characteristic point. He must have owned an eraser; it’s just not obvious that he ever used it in his depictions of form. Nor is there evidence in this archival set of drawings that the artist even considered the possibility that these designs he was reproducing so faithfully, using only his eyes and hands, were handiwork of a supernatural intelligence.
We do have some indication, however, that his pencil habits were probably formed early because they were so completely ingrained. Cleaning out what remains of John Janovy’s drawing equipment, more than thirty years after his death, I find dozens of pencils, the wood shaved, the lead exposed and filed to a needle point, in all kinds of colors and degrees of hardness. I envision him shaving and sharpening these pencils, carefully, exactly, over a wastebasket, all by himself, alone in an office, no telephone, no radio, no noise whatsoever except the muffled sound of traffic seven floors below, to distract a petroleum geologist from his preparation of an instrument to draw a line on a piece of paper, a line that reveals how convergence of natural processes leads to the production of those magic resources that fuel tanks, sending them in a cloud of dust across some desert terrain, or self-propelled howitzers dug in, lined up, covered with camouflage netting, recoiling with their own internal explosions, or P-51 Mustangs screaming across the sky, or jeeps straight out of some Bill Mauldin cartoon. With these finely sharpened pencils, having practiced earlier on frogs and sea stars, he now studies rocks and draws the lines that point to oil.
Some time during the period from 1931 to 1935, he also sits down at a table in front of what is called a “dissecting microscope.” If you are going to carefully cut up a mosquito, taking its wings off, separating its leg joints, and finally pulling out its salivary glands to see if it is infected with some malarial parasite, then you need to do this work under magnification. And if you are going to dissect a core from a mile below a Chambers County, Texas, oil well named Sun Oil #4 in search of fossil amebas, you must have the same equipment. Jonathan Swift either had such a microscope, or a fertile imagination, for his descriptions of the Brobdingnabians’ skin as recorded by Gulliver on his travels among the giants is remarkably close to what you see beneath the lenses, namely your own fingers and nails magnified a couple of dozen times, holding tiny needles stuck in a wooden handle, as you begin your dissection of an insect or a piece of limestone. Ridges, fingernail cracks, hanging cuticle, a subtle array of human skin colors to challenge all but the most exquisitely talented Renaissance painters, all appear under magnification. ‘I do not look the same under this lens,’ you think, ‘as I look in the mirror.’ Eyes to the microscope, you realize that this is what you would look like to a beetle, if an insect could see as clearly as J. Swift. The lens is both literal and metaphorical; your magnified finger tells you something about yourself that you may not want to know.
But John Janovy leaves no record of what his cuticle looked like in 1933; no journal entries record his introspective lapses, if there were any. Instead, we have the results of his labor—slides of fossil amebas and ostracods, crustaceans no larger than the amebas, all comprising data that if you know the rest of this geologist, you can interpret easily as a lesson about how the world operates. Like a photograph from the 1930s, hidden in not-quite-forgotten files while the decades slipped away, or drawings from an undergraduate’s laboratory notebook, these specimens are tangible evidence for a past, which in turn was a boundary condition for one tiny component of life on Earth. The past as boundary condition is a fundamental property of change directed either by choice, as in the case of individual humans, or by contingency, as in the case of evolving populations, species, and often nations. Was this lesson about boundary conditions the one he was being taught in the early 1930, by some professor who’d assigned the task, or is it one being taught, as I look at these slides seventy years later, on a daily basis now that I’ve learned to see design as constraint?
It’s easy to answer “yes” to both those possibilities. The slides are labeled with incomplete, thus tantalizing, text such as Sun Oil #4 Chambers Barbers Hill 5075-5093 Het zone—indicating a thin layer of limestone that begins 5075 feet beneath Houston and is characterized so strongly by a single genus of ameba—Heterostegina—that it’s commonly known among those learning how to search for oil as the “Het zone.” What kind of upheaval events had our planet experienced between the Oligocene interment of a shell barely visible to the unaided eye and its retrieval, thirty million years later, by an American college student who saw this activity as essential training if one has chosen finding petroleum as a profession? The answer is simple: whatever events led to the formation of crude oil a mile below Houston. And central to our understanding of this process linking past to future is shape—morphology, in the scientific vernacular—and a human’s ability to interpret such shape, put the image into a context built from existing knowledge, and derive from the beast in its setting a decision that leads to oil. So here we have the meaning of visual literacy. We see the world, we interpret the vision—understanding the constraints and opportunities—and then we infer process; then predict future and, if we can convince someone to give us enough money, we act on our predictions. Did John know, back in 1933, he was both learning and preserving, thus passing on, this lesson about how to make a living from the natural world? I doubt it, but want to believe the answer to this question, too, is “yes.”
If there is any larger reason for studying the design of ameba shells, it is the broad applicability of this principle: details and settings may vary, but historical processes tend to be universal, rather like physical laws. Thus by resurrecting one Oklahoma geologist’s formative experiences we are reminded of those two basic views of the future, each demanding a different strategy for arriving in that distant region: there is one, and we must find our place in it, or, conversely, there is none and we must therefore build it. John Janovy was clearly of the latter mind. Evolutionary principles are integral to this vision of what lies ahead. And among the specimens on a single slide, retrieved from a dusty shoebox in a garage closet nearly half a century after it was made, are the examples that teach us creativity. How do amebas, over time, convert a single hollow calcareous chamber into a diverse array of containers, each with multiple chambers, assemblages that defy understanding without their development revealed? Again, the answer is easy to provide but difficult to make happen: play all those possible variations on a theme and see which ones work. In this case, however, amebas have engaged, over the previous thirty million years, in the “evolutionary play upon the ecological stage”—to paraphrase G. Evelyn Hutchinson’s famous and compelling metaphor.
The theme of these amebas is a series of chambers, each somewhat larger than the preceding one, secreted by a single-celled eukaryotic organism, i.e., a cell with a well-formed nucleus bounded by membranes and containing the instructions, written in DNA, needed to build a design from calcium carbonate and silicon. The chambers are connected to one another, and it is tempting to attribute their increasing size to “need;” i.e., as it grows, the ameba gets larger, thus “needs” a bigger place in which to live, a larger room for protection. That is a human interpretation of causality imposed on a single cell floating in the ocean, catching prey with sheets of filamentous cytoplasm spread out in a microscopic net. There is absolutely no way to assess the “needs” of amebas except in biochemical terms: a mixture of pre-formed carbohydrates, amino acids, vitamins, and inorganic minerals. At this level, the “needs” of an ameba are equal to the “needs” of a tiger or of the neighbor children playing in a yard across the street. They need food and water and time, and at the molecular level, “food” is about the same regardless of whether you catch it in the ocean, or in the jungle, or buy it at Wall Mart.
The idea of growth being coupled with a continuing “need” for protection and chambers of increasing size—a succession of rooms of one’s own—is a concept we impose on a part of nature we do not know well, if at all. The ancient shells beneath John’s microscope, however, remind us that although the designs could be, and probably are, tightly coupled to the amebas’ existence, they also are as diverse as the choices by which humans build their dwellings. Thus we have the concept of variations on this theme, and indeed, on any theme, regardless of whether we understand the underlying causality. In the case of marine amebas, the themes are as follows, although they are much better illustrated than described: a linear series of chambers, increasing in size; two linear series attached, and increasing in size in phase, a coiled set of chambers reminiscent of a Nautilus shell, an agglomeration of globular chambers, grape cluster-like, but again with chambers of increasing size, a plan in which succeeding chambers surround and overgrow their existing predecessors, in effect hiding what’s happened before, to name but a few of the common variations. If John Janovy taught his son anything as a result of this posthumous interaction with his college lab specimens, it’s to be patient with, even appreciative of, extreme diversity. Homogeneity is boring; heterogeneity is interesting, and microscopic invertebrates are extremely heterogeneous. That is the take home lesson that survives through the decades when a college kid decides to, or is allowed to, keep his amebas and eventually give them to his own child.
These ocean-dwelling amebas thus provide an easy step into the realm of shape, both literal—the shape of a salt dome, the shape of a purse, the shape of a woman’s body—and metaphorical—the shape of the future. That is, we are ready to examine the matter of design in its most general sense, i.e., the sense that we suspect occupied John’s mind even as a college student, his eyes glued to the oculars and his magnified fingers sorting through the dust for fossils. Thus the phrase “these are but a few of the common variations” could apply easily to all facets of human existence—war, sex, politics, agriculture, medicine, financial transactions, paintings of nudes, landscape photographs, basketball games, marriages and other seemingly committed relationships, diseases, boy-meets-girl (boy-meets-boy; girl-meets-girl) fiction, murder, unwanted pregnancy, and the decision-making behavior of elected officials or others with power over the common good. Like a growing young individual Heterostegina reticulata, adrift in prehistoric oceans that would eventually become known as the Mediterranean Sea, the “house” you build is the “house” you live in, and with. The shape of that ameba’s house is, however, inherited, at least within limits; but the issue for John at his microscope is whether the shape of whatever house he intends to build, within the house built for him by the decisions of powerful men of his time, must be as fixed as a set of genes would dictate.
(JJJr’s note: the “powerful men of his time” included Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill).

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

TUSKERS - the backstory

TUSKERS – The backstory

Karen and I were at a party one evening back in the late 1980s, and I had a conversation with a gentleman named Bob Starck. Bob was a good friend, a literary type, art collector, film maker, etc., and I knew him because he and another friend, John Spence, had worked on some film projects involving my books. So this party was a fairly artsy one. During this conversation, Bob mentioned that he’d like to go out in the field with me some time, so I told him that I was leaving at 3:00AM the next morning for a one-day fish collecting trip out to the South Platte River at Roscoe, my main research site near the Cedar Point Biological Station for about 20 years. Bob decided to go, and I picked him up about 3:30 the next morning. We drove out to Roscoe; he helped me seine fish (Fundulus zebrinus), and we drove back to Lincoln, all on the same day. We took the blue 1973 Gran Torino station wagon that I’d bought for $600 a couple of years earlier so Karen would have something to drive to the beach at Lake McConaughy instead of her new station wagon. So for five or six hours going out, and five or six hours coming back, we talked about literature, film making, and writing.

As we talked, I complained that my more creative writing endeavors were being declined by my literary agent. I was tired of writing essays about nature, and was essentially out of ideas and material, and had been trying a number of different things, including fiction. Bob told me I should write a book about Nebraska football. He talked about how rabid the state’s citizens were about football, and how I could create all these characters, etc. I thought about simply typing 300 pages of GO BIG RED in different fonts, but decided that was not such a great idea regardless of the fact that it would sell like hotcakes. Nevertheless, a book about Nebraska football intrigued me.

About this time I was either still Interim Director of the University of Nebraska State Museum, or had just finished my first tour over there. Every day I went to work in a building with magnificent mammoth and mastodon fossils, and one of our curators was an expert on these extinct giants. I don’t know where the idea of TUSKERS actually came from, but I knew that it would not be smart to write about the current or recent coaches, so that the book, if I wrote it, had to be set far in the future. Bob Starck’s important contribution to this project was his “what if?” question: what if Nebraska won every game for ten years, then what? The “then what? became TUSKERS. Once I decided what to write, the book essentially wrote itself very quickly.

The literary problem was how to create a despicable character, one who used everything in his power to make Nebraska lose its most important football game, without any of the standard techniques for creating villains (crime, violence, sex, etc.). The solution was to use really offensive language and extremely disrespectful dialog. So I decided Arly Hockrood needed to be a real foul mouth because he’s not a criminal and he’s not really hurting anyone, at least on purpose. TUSKERS is rated R because of language. The narrative device used at the end of chapter 4 was borrowed directly from a movie, PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES, with John Candy and Steve Martin; Martin supplied the movie dialog. Charlie Robbins is modeled at least in part on our son who was the tuba rank leader in the UNL marching band when he was in college.

My literary agent loved this book and suffered through 23 rejections before she quit trying. Our youngest daughter, Jena, was a superior athlete and as she went through college and into sports journalism, she continued to say “Dad, you’ve got to publish TUSKERS!!” So eventually, when the self-publishing industry became viable I did. Sahara Cathcart, a former architecture major turned pre-med, designed the cover. The Museum gave me permission to use the image, a Marc Marcuson mural in Elephant Hall.

I really am fairly happy with TUSKERS as a piece of writing and consider it one of my better, and most important, works, mainly because of what it says about our obsession with sports. And, of course, more and more frequently we read about efforts to resurrect woolly mammoths from DNA in frozen carcasses.


John Janovy, Jr.