January 26, 2005

Done With Mirrors Interview

It's the Done With Mirrors Interview!

In the extended...

Why did you start your blog?

It was that or start a fight. Since I was outnumbered,
the blog seemed the better option.

[This actually is the second one. I was told to quit
the first one or be fired (see "What exactly do you do
for a living?"). This one technically is not mine.
That is, if you look up the data on Blogger, it is not
registered to me. It just happens to be a place where
I post all the time. That, I think, puts me on the
safe side of company policy.]

As for why I got into the thing to begin with, circa
11 a.m., Sept. 11, 2001, after a 20-year career in
journalism (see below under "What exactly do you do
for a living?") I found my personal evolution had
carried me across that magic threshhold between
"newsroom culture" and "actual ethical thinking."

OK, that's my version of things, but there is a
group-think and a set of common assumptions that allow
a group of 30 or 40 people to put out a newspaper
every day that has one masthead and one voice. And if
there's no one more bitter than an apostate, it's
partly because he knows the inner shams and flaws of
what he has abandoned.

So during the war and then the election I watched and
listened to all manner of knee-jerk idiocy every time
I went to work, till it brought me near my boiling
point. I hammered out in prose the retorts and
rebutals that I spared to speak aloud, for the sake of
keeping the peace in the workplace. I got yelled at
anyhow -- for typing too loudly.

That's how the blogging began.

What's a "Callimachus"?

He was a Hellenistic Greek poet and critic from the
3rd century B.C.E. Like a lot of the great ancient
writers, he survives only in shreds: a mere six poems
out of more than 800 that he wrote.

It was the name I chose when I registered for the
"Guardian" talk-back site after 9/11; I revived it for
this blog. I like the name for the sense of it: The
ancient Greek elements break down to "beauty" (the
sort of virile, robust beauty that the Greeks admired)
+ "battle/fight." So they "beautiful battle" component
is one I cherish in the Internet polemical wars.

Of course, I'm no great shakes as a Hellenist (being
more or less self-taught), and the name might as well
mean "the struggle to be beautiful." But that sort of
applies, too.

He's an obscure character, but I admire him and
identify with him on a number of levels. He worked in
the library in Alexandria, and I, too, find myself
buried among the scrolls more nights than I care to
admit. He drew up a catalogue which was more than a
catalogue; it doubled as a literary history. I feel
like, in a dim way, I'm doing something along those
lines with my dictionary project.

His poetry, as one scholar writes, "is notable for
brevity, polish, wit, learning, and inventiveness in
form." When I wrote poetry, ages ago, I aspired to
that quality of refinement, and I still try to keep it
in mind when writing prose. Also, his work influenced
the best (in my opinion) of the Roman poets, notably
Catullus. Strange to think of a librarian being a
lodestar for the randy Catullus, but that's art for

Another Roman who proclaimed his influence was Sextius
Propertius, who calls himself the "Callimachus
Romanus." In fact, I first encountered Callimachus in
Ezra Pound's "homage" to Propertius. Pound identified
himself with the Roman poet, as attempting to salvage
what was most worthy out of an older tradition and
bring it to modern audiences. It's a passion I can
share with all three of them, even if I can't hold a
candle to their attainments.

What exactly do you do for a living?

I have to be a bit cagey about this, because my
employer forbids blogging. I work as a copy editor for
a small-city newspaper in southeastern Pennsylvania.
You rarely see my name in the newspaper, but if you
read a headline that makes you laugh, I might have
written that. My dream job would be writing the heads
for the New York Post; you know, "Headless Body Found
in Topless Bar," that sort of thing. I also write
history books, mostly on local topics, and the
occasional journal article. Recently I was featured in
a BBC presentation on the Welsh in America, but don't
look for me on TV very often.

I've been in journalism for 21 years now, without ever
having decided to make a career out of it. Without
ever taking a course in it. Without ever having prior
experience, except running an underground newspaper in
high school, until the day someone shoved a reporter's
notebook at me and said, "here, go cover this car
crash." I'm not touting my polymath abilities, just
making a small point to the people who think you
actually can learn to do this sitting in a classroom.

Who are your favorite writers?

Oh, don't get me signifying; we'll be here all night.
Just to limit it to relatively modern fiction: James
Joyce, Stendhal, W.G. Sebald, Thornton Wilder, Charles
Palliser, Günter Grass, William Wharton, Faulkner,
Eudora Welty, Lorrie Moore, John Updike, Melville,
Tolkien, Conrad, Emily Brontë, Roddy Doyle, and of
course Guy Davenport, whom I eulogized recently ...
OK, I'll stop now. Writing ought to be discussed over
dark beer in smoky saloons, not while hunched over a

What do you think of Noam Chomsky?

He is a formidable thinker. Some of his political
conclusions are so far gone it's tempting to dismiss
him as an academic idiot, and some people do this, but
I think it's a mistake. If you really want to stalk
the beast, you have to track it to its lair, which, in
this case, is his discipline of cognative linguistics.
He's one of the few people alive to have invented an
entire academic discipline.

I do some work in languages, but I almost never
encounter his name there. What he does is not
"practical" in the tradition of Grimm and Jakobson and
de Saussure (though the latter starts to get toward
what Chomsky does). Chomsky isn't interested in how
Latin evolved into French, or why "Beowulf" is more
like modern Icelandic than modern English.

He's interested in the way the human mind "does"
language. It's really more mass psychology than
linguistics, and its heavily philosophical. And it is
taken seriously by people who are close to this study,
though not all linguists accept it.

There's a particular quirk in his academic work,
however. He shares, along with many people, a dread of
"sociobiology," which took Darwin's insight about
evolution and applied it to all human behaviors. Yet
clearly evolution can explain some basic, deep-seated
human qualities, just as it can explain why we have
too many teeth in our mouths. But not to Chomsky. He
is unwilling to allow any possibility of a biological
explanation for language. Some biologists accuse him
of being a "crypto-creationist," and in fact if
creationists want to find a respected academic who
writes things that support their attacks on Darwin,
they could do no better than Chomsky.

But he's not a creationist; he just is determined to
avoid the whole mechanism of evolution, because it was
perverted in one instance by some of Darwin's
followers. It's no coincidence that Chomsky first came
to wider attention in the 1950s with a furious attack
on the work of B.F. Skinner. Skinner was his opposite
counterpart, an absolutist behaviorist.

I once had a conversation with a Chomskyite who flatly
denied that biology could possibly explain in any way
sexual attraction! His reason? "That would be social
Darwinism," and therefore it's impossible for him to

I doubt Chomsky himself would go that far, but many of
his academic disciples seem to. Anyway, this is windy,
as any attempt to figure this out would have to be.
There's a good introduction to this problem in the
late chapter's of Daniel Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous
Idea," and you can find another approach to it, from
within linguistics, in some of the work of Stephen

Who would you like to see duke it out in the next
presidential election?

I'd love to see McCain in the mix, but I'm afraid he's
going to be too old by then. I can't wait till Obama
hits his stride, but he's too young yet. So I'll
settle back and root for a Condi-Hilary match, but
this is starting to resemble the answer to "Name a
guilty pleasure." Besides, I know we won't get it.
Rice isn't enough of a pure politician. And Hillary's
probably too poisonous. I miss Dean. At least you knew
what was in his mind. I wish Arnold could run.
Actually, I'd love to see Ed Rendell as a national
candidate, just to see if he could find enough
un-mustard-stained ties to last through an election

If you could go back in time and visit any one day in
history, which day would you choose?

This is maybe weird, but I'd like to spend a nice,
long sunny September day in the part of America where
I grew up (the Delaware Valley of Pennsylvania) a
thousand years before Columbus set foot in the New
World. Just to see the ancient forest from first light
to midnight, and see a million stars wheel above a
clearing on a hilltop and know that I'm lying on grass
on the site of, say Philadelphia.

If you were to meet anybody from history, who would it
be and why?

See, the trouble with that question is, those people
have to meet you, too. And chances are someone you
admire, like Chaucer or Calhoun or Sappho or Lucrezia
Borgia, isn't going to have a really good time hanging
around with you. Bummer. But I think it would be
pleasant to take a carriage ride with Samuel Johnson.
Having done the dictionary thing myself, I can
probably actually tell him some things he'd enjoy as
well as partaking of his wit.

Besides, he drank like a fish, which often is an
indicator of a potential good time to be had.

If you were going to put together a time capsule to be
opened in 100 years, what would you include in it?

About six of those spring-coil "snakes" that you can
buy in gag gift shops like Spencer's. Then, under
that, a turntable that plays 78s. There's an awful lot
of music history that's already inaccessible.

What are the most important things you'd like to be
known for?

It's funny how all that changes when you have a kid. I
have the capability of being a completely
self-absorbed bastard of a writer. The kind that
manages to make everyone around him miserable sooner
or later, because his essential focus is on the
interior process. You know, Shelley drives his father
nuts and drives his wives to suicide and leaves his
children in squalor, but it's worth it to the world
because we get "Ozymandius" and "Adonais."

But after my son was born, I realized that wasn't me
after all. Not that I ever was going to be the next
Shelley, but I could have done something along that
line. Now, what I'm most proud of is the young man
he's become, and how much good and positive energy
he's spread in the world already. Not how much he's
like me, but how much he's like him.

Who were your heroes growing up?

Is there any little boy who hasn't idolized his
father? I remember wanting a toy tool kit when I was
3, so I could follow him into the basement and fix
everything, the way he did.

As a teen-ager, I found a hero in Gandhi. It wasn't
his non-violence itself that drew me as much as his
conception of it as power -- genuine power. He's
misunderstood some things. He failed to see the depth
of evil that can simmer in some hearts. But despite
his personal frailty, there was nothing milquetostish
in his philosophy. What people overlook in it is how
he always advocated it as a weapon of the strong
against the weak, not an excuse for the weak to not
fight back.

Have any heroes now?

It gets harder to hold on to that as you get older.
But right now, I'd say there's an element of hero in
every person -- military and civilian, foreign or
local -- working in Afghanistan and Iraq to bring the
rule of law and the hope of freedom to those
countries. We're talking about real people, with real
weaknesses mixed into their heroism. But great heroes,
like Homer's Achilles and even his gods, weren't
perfect. A perfect person is something else, not a

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

There's a lot of individual things I'm proud of, like
once talking my way out of $600 worth of parking
tickets, or being able to recite the Gettysburg
Address in Old English, but no one thing is really the
one I'm most proud of.

So I'll have to reach for one of those overarching
concepts. Over the doorway of Ardmore Junior High
School, now long-since torn down, was the motto "Enter
to Learn, Go Forth to Serve." That's a two-part
commandment, and to the degree to which I've used my
gods-given gifts for soaking up learning, and turned
that around to be of benefit to the times I live in,
or to nudge the world imperceptibly in some better,
more enlightened direction, then I am proud of that
accomplishment. It's not something I spend a lot of
time measuring, though.

What do you see when you look in the mirror?

Blotchy skin, unruly hair, and an ugly lump of nose I
can trace back, identical, in family photographs to

How did you meet your lovely wife?

We met on Match.com. Yeah, I know, lame. But I work
very strange hours and there's not much chance to
socialize. I'm a strange bird, anyhow, so most women
won't be interested, especially in this town. The odd
thing was, I'd just come off a long-term relationship
that was mostly carried on online, and I definitely
didn't want to go through that again. I was looking
for someone local, but I still turned to the Internet
to find her.

And, yes, Amy really did work for a decade or so in
the costume department in the basement of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

I wouldn't recommend looking on Match.com for her
like, though. She truly was one in a billion. She sure
stood out among the toothless 37-year-old

Boxers or briefs?

Foxy Boxers. Some of those chicks can lay on the
leather. Especially that little brunette with the
crescent moon tattooed on her left shoulder and the
wicked uppercut. Not that I really was watching or

Name a guilty pleasure.

Women's prison flicks.

What's on the top of today's to-do list?

Answer a dozen e-mails, and shovel frigging snow.
Shovel snow that has the heft of rock, that can wrench
your back out of order and bury your car. Snow as hard
and real as lava -- yet for all my painstaking it will
be gone in a few weeks as though it never was here.

What is in your CD player right now?

Ah, you caught me. It's a duo called "Vas," featuring
a singer of Iranian-Indian extraction who has an
aetherial voice. It's borderline New Age, but I swear
it's well on the "real music" side of the line. Her
name is Azam Ali, and she also has a fantastic
compilation of re-set medieval music called "Portals
of Grace."

Other recent tenants there include John
Coltrane/Johnny Harman, Jet, Wilson Pickett, Sigur
Ros, Pizzicato 5, and "Rubber Soul."

If you had two weeks of free time with no
responsibilities and no cash-flow issues, what would
you do?

Day-um. The gods deny such luxuries to some humans
because of the amount of truly twisted desires that
lurk in such people's hearts. Something tells me I'm
one of those humans.

If I had to behave, though, I'd probably travel with
Amy and Luke. Places I love, like the middle Florida
Keys or the German Alps. Or maybe some place I've
never been, like out West.

Posted by Jennifer at January 26, 2005 11:00 AM


Wow, that was an interesting interview -- 'specially the first half. I assume you've also read Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained? I've recommended it many times to folks and don't know of anyone else whose ever read it (before or after my recommendation). What do you think Chomsky would think of it? (I'm not all that familiar with Chomsky's academic views.)

Posted by: Tuning Spork at January 26, 2005 09:06 PM

Thanks for the kind words, TS. But I'm afraid you have to add me to the list of people who have yet to read "Consciousness Explained." Along with "Freedom Evolves," it's on the big stack of books at my bedside threatening to crush me in my sleep if I don't start reading them.

Posted by: Callimachus at January 26, 2005 10:07 PM

Little note on online-dating:

I wonder when meeting your partner on-line will become mainstream and thus "un-lame", the same way cell phones stopped being an object of derision when enough people took to using them. I can tell you I too found my wife online, and the chances of having met someone so unique any other way were slim in the extreme. Same goes for a girlfriend of mine who met her "charming princess" on a bulleting board and moved to Germany to be with her.
There is a part of "The Bell Curve" (not that I endorse all that is said there) that contends that today kindred people (specifically intelligent ones, but I think "non-ordinary" would apply better) can match up easier than before. In a big way, we have ARPAnet to thank for that.

Posted by: Jose at January 27, 2005 02:13 PM

I think online dating is already the preferred way to meet potential partners among the younger, computer saavy generations. Most of my 30-something girlfriends met their current boyfriends and husbands online, and I too met my Prince Charming that way.

Everybody's doing it, not everyone wants to admit it. I've even seen colleagues faces turn up on online dating services (I'm sure they'd be horrified if they knew I was reading about their idea of the perfect romantic date). I suspect the degree of perceived "lameness" is largely a generational factor.

I don't find it lame at all. For me it was a fabulously fun and highly entertaining way to meet the most interesting people.

Posted by: Amy (Mrs. Callimachus) at January 27, 2005 03:57 PM

On the shift I work, my time to be free and awake is about 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. Not much going on around here then. So for conversation, I got in the habit of going online. Online, it's always happy hour somewhere. I now probably have more friends online than in the town where I live.

But it's more than that. My interests and tastes are odd, and with strangers I feel as much at ease, perhaps moreso, communicating with written words than in direct conversation. That adds up to "nerd" or whatever, and to acknowledge that is to accept the mantle.

Nothing wrong with that, or inherently lame about it, but at the same time I'm aware that it appears so to a greater part of the world. And Amy's right; since I'm 44, most of my peers are still only marginally tapped in to the Internet and still regard it as the domain of losers and techno-geeks.

Posted by: Callimachus at January 27, 2005 04:37 PM

I do think more and more people are doing it. Of course, as everywhere, you have the bulk of people who just wouldn't interest you anyway, but then you can sift through them at a much higher speed to get to the nugget in the ton of ore. Very time-efficient.

I also think people with original interests and great language skills blossom in the Net. And they attract princely beauties with sharp intellects, as we just had the proof...

Posted by: Jose at January 28, 2005 10:18 PM

Yeah, and the thing is, I wasn't even really looking to hook up when I joined online dating services. I was just trying to get my mojo back after a long, sad breakup. And I got way lucky. But then, when it's obvious that you really are on a hunt, you're doomed to strike out. And that's a truism of romance far older than the Internet.

Posted by: Callimachus at January 28, 2005 11:02 PM