Transcriptional Bursting, Minecraft, and Active Listening

–by Heather Murphy

Sometimes, people are talking to me and I’m not really listening, not all the way. It’s not that I’m faking it, I’m not; though my dad says there are a quadrillion synapses in the human nervous system, there are a finite number of them I’m capable of firing in a given day without falling into a short-circuited heap onto an unswept floor. Certain things will be processed with as much critical thinking muscle as it takes to blink, or take in oxygen.

There are keywords that prick up my ears: Mom, hungry, food, chocolate, late, sex, please, and my first name are about the length of it, however.

I am not always in this state of not-really-listening. In fact, much of the time, I can be eagerly attentive, letting my natural curiosity and piqued interest lead me to all sorts of stories and information. But if I am writing, or recalling, or attempting to make four tasty dishes appear simultaneously on the table with steam still emanating from them, I might not hear the details of your new minecraft world. I might miss the fact that the furnace filter needs to be changed. And I might only nod my head and mumble into the oven when my dad comes over for dinner early to inform me that Transcriptional Bursting is messenger RNAs being produced from a DNA template.

Not-really-listening happens when I am pushing the limits of my neurological abilities. If I am working out a problem in my head, I can’t tune in to the voices all around me.

As I typed the last sentence—which sounded like the inner dialog of a schizophrenic, I know–I lied: “Yes,” to a question my husband asked me, and even mustered eye contact and a smile, and I have no idea what subject he was even attempting to discuss with me. His voice was calm and friendly, and currently, he seems happy to keep chattering sweetly as I bang away on the keyboard with the limited amount of time I have to do so before other people’s stomachs drag me unceremoniously away.

Though multitasking has become the modus operandi of our culture, I find it difficult to type an interesting blog, on-the-fly, and listen to people talk about the installation process for a spa filter. At least that’s what I think he was talking about—I didn’t hear any keywords, or sense distress, so I could not tell you with any certainty, but I hear the motor of the thing now, so I’ve taken liberties, extrapolating. The brain is wonderful that way.

But hearing is not listening. Listening requires that you be all-there to hear the words. You cannot do so if you are elsewhere, in your mind, working out your important problems. Listening can be a kind of magic, where you take in information and suffuse it with your own insights, emotional responses, memories, and wisdom, and create the rich dynamic of communication with another person by feeding this back to them. How can you do that and roast brussel sprouts at the same time?

Active listening as a psychology term was coined by Carl Rogers. It involves listening closely and attentively, then paraphrasing, at opportune moments, to let the speaker know you are abreast of the situation. In my family, we set time aside specifically for this, since too much of the time, there are distractions. Keeping open and interested lines of communication with my children is crucial to all of us. When I actively listen, I can pry, interject, question, learn, laugh, and deepen my understanding of the people I care to hear.

Rapidly, we are moving into a time of communication overload, which is really cloaked scarcity. It is a bitter irony that the more online and gadget communicating people are doing now, the less face to face contact they are having with real live people. Active listening will become a lost art, or somehow used as flattery for the exploitation of stupid people with money, and that is a shame. When you listen, you learn.

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Tampa: A Review of Alissa Nutting’s First Novel

-by Heather Murphy

It doesn’t seem quite right to start out with a negative remark, but it would almost be wrong to make a declaration of enjoyment. I didn’t enjoy the book, but not because the writing was lacking, it wasn’t–it was crisp and fast flowing as a cold stream, but it didn’t offer sustenance, and it kept me in a state that could only be compared with the way you’re left feeling after you haven’t had access to healthy food for several days on end.

The twenty-something female narrator presents as a selfish, diabolically narcissistic sexual predator, more than intent on finding and feasting upon her favored prey: fourteen year old boys. Luckily, she is a teacher and has easy access, so panic and desperation are held at bay, or surely she would do something rash.

Sometimes, when an actor is playing a sinister role, they will be so proficient in their craft as to make you despise them. Nutting certainly has talent as a writer–she pulled that one off; I wanted Celeste Price, bitch-in-heat-extraordinaire, dead as a doornail. To detest a protagonist with such zest is rare for me, but this one was as unsympathetic as they come.

I found myself relating to the author instead, then. It couldn’t be helped. The woman can seamlessly and tirelessly serve up gourmet similes so tasty, they melted in your mouth, metaphors so rich in texture, my book-lover tongue savored each morsel. As appealing as the simplistic style may have been, decorated as it was with a treasure trove of good writing, I was going hungry.

I wanted more.

I wandered off, paths with dead ends. Where were the boys? What were they thinking? The filtered insights of a pathological pedophile weren’t evasive, they were empty. Casting around, again, I escaped to the hypothetical mindset of the author. What was she thinking? Wasn’t she worried about what they were thinking?

The history of the boys, and of Celeste Price herself, was nonexistent. They came from the ether, and in the flesh they were manipulated to do things that would have set their minds whirring to levels audible to the reader. But yet, I heard nothing from them. Point of view was relegated strictly to the stalking animal body of Celeste Price and her sociopathic mind.

Hunger pangs tinged with nausea.

I don’t like to not finish a book. I rarely do this, because I do choose with some discretion, say, a friend recommended it, an admirable author gave it a favorable review, the credentials of the author are impressive, et al. Truth be told, I didn’t feel compelled to finish this book, beyond hopes for a fruitful verdict.

I found my mood souring. My warning speeches to my sons about predators rekindled with new fervor, and contained all the new, freshly gleaned details of possible psychological traps. I stared off into space between chapters and cringed inwardly at the inherent weakness of the other sex. The victims of Celeste Price never stood a chance. She was an ocean closing over their heads.

I grew cranky reading the elaborate and constant minutia of sweaty masturbation rituals, tired of being able to picture her fumbling with a vibrator, and tired of being able to almost hear her muscled thighs peel from the leather seats of her trophy wife car. I needed her to go inward, she could not. She bumped up against plastic when she made feeble attempts.

That brings us to ethos and pathos. It’s all the former and none of the latter. This is because the aberrant narrator–whom, by Ms. Nutting’s genius, stays true to her personality disorder—is devoid of the philosophical meanderings of a sane person. She does not recall past events unless they involved contact with a male minor who met prey specifications. She does not reflect, analyze, ruminate, or meditate on anything but an orgasm. And you don’t feel a bit sorry for her. In fact, you’d like to meet her in a dark alley and re-arrange her too-pretty face.

This isn’t a book to enjoy, though you should admire the style of writing, the consistency of the elements, and the flow which has been generated to keep it moving so fast there wasn’t really time to throw it against the wall.

An Anniversary With Fire

Letters to Pomona

–by Heather Murphy

Eleven years ago to the day, I was driven up to the emergency entrance of the birthing center in a nearby Southern Oregon town, excited, afraid, and as ready as I could be for the sixteen hours of hallucinatory labor that would follow before my stubborn son was surgically extracted from me. The home birth had deteriorated. It diverted as far off course as I’d let my imagination run during the early months of the pregnancy when irrational fears can get the best of you at any given moment.

But I had my game face on. This was going to be a magical experience, regardless of how many surgical instruments might be implemented.

As they wheeled me in, ash rained down on me from the Biscuit Fire, unceremoniously decorating my hair with its ruined confetti. The fire wasn’t “close,” but it was close enough, and it was…

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