Monthly Archives: October 2011

Here Are the Rules

A fist labeled "Obey"I’ve lived a good part of my life in the north, and plenty of places besides Pennsylvania (New Jersey, New York, West Virginia, Indiana). So I’ve seen snow. I’ve seen enough snow to satisfy Siberia. But I grew up in the south, and I guess my formative response to the seasons originated in a more temperate climate. That may account for the fact that on a day like today I’m thinking, “It’s October! Why the fuck is it snowing?”

And they say we’ll get inches. And inches. And inches. Ahhhhhhh!

Alright. OK. I’m calm now. Anyway, there’s half a bottle of whiskey in the kitchen, and maybe some food. I’m sure it’ll be alright.

I did sit down here with a real topic: following the rules. I suppose most people instinctively don’t like rules, which is not the same thing as rebelling against them. Actually, I believe it’s more likely that we’re ambivalent about rules. We don’t like being told what to do, but a place that literally has no rules, or not enough rules, sounds pretty creepy in practice. I’m looking at you, Somalia. Anarchy may be tolerable in a room full of two-year-olds, but it’s not that much fun at the national level. That’s probably why libertarian politicians like Ron Paul, who sort of remind us of anarchy, never get very far. Americans vote for libertarians the way Italians used to vote for communists. It’s OK, as long as they don’t actually get elected.

I also have to admit that some rules seem like Inherently Good Things. I want every single rule carefully followed in connection with flying an airplane. Or for that matter I want every Toilet Repair Rule followed. That is not the place to express rebellion against conformity.

My interest in this blog is more about social rules. I’ll quote a bit of wisdom from my ex-wife, a line I’ve used from time to time since I heard her say it. In describing the inscrutable mystery of how to raise a child properly, she said, “What makes a good child makes a bad adult.” We want children to do what we tell them, because probably 70-80% of the time  we do know what we’re talking about. We do not want recalcitrance, procrastination, or interrogation. We want immediate, cheerful obedience to our authority.

When adults give immediate, cheerful obedience to authority you can get some rather horrible results. If adults deserve to be called adults, they should be questioning. So how do you raise a human being to transition smoothly from quiet obedience to critical questioning of authority? The unfortunate answer is that there’s not a way. It necessarily involves pouting, tears, and slamming doors.

Now here’s my real topic. (It took me a while to warm up, didn’t it? I’m like an old car that has to sit running in the snow for a while.) One of the most pernicious phemonena in human culture is social rules. We’ll always have rules about how to behave, how to interact, what is “proper”, but some, or many, of those rules are overtly stupid and worse, like the rule that a woman cannot be governor of the state. But with a lot of thrashing around, noise, and with—guess who?—conservatives opposing the change, we’ve started getting rid of that rule.A woman breaking a rule of sitting on steps

An argument might be made that social rules exist to provide the greatest good to the most people, that we are all happier with social rules. I don’t think that’s always true. Basic human nature, basic needs, physical and spiritual, are the same throughout the world. If social rules are meant to ensure our happiness, then how is it possible for such rules to be not merely different, but stupendously different, throughout time and around the world? Almost every rule we find in any location can be contradicted in a dozen other  places.

At heart, social rules are about control. Of course I do not want to be controlled myself. I want other people to be controlled. Without social rules, I would have to think about things more, give more serious contemplation to what really is good or bad in a given situation, without a ready answer in the form of a rule. So much thinking. I might wind up having to think all the time.

There is only one rule that truly, morally, needs to be obeyed. Do not hurt anyone. Do not hurt anyone either by action or by negligence. If you are seriously trying to observe this, then all other rules are optional. (Though you will hurt people by accident sometimes; it’s part of the human condition.)

Often, very often, social rules harm the search for happiness, already not an easy thing to start with. Let’s note some literary examples. The ones that spring most immediately to my mind are about women, as so many social rules are about controlling women: Anna Karenina (Anna Karenina by Tolstoy), Janie (Their Eyes Were Watching God by Hurston), Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary by Flaubert). These three woman all suffer in various ways because society has said to them, “Here is what you have to do.” The rules they are given have no relationship to their feelings, to what they need emotionally, or to how they are being treated. It does not matter how your husband treats you. This is what we are telling you to do.

In 1993 Daniel Day-Lewis was in a movie version of The Age of Innocence (by Edith Wharton). The book takes place in the 1890s in upper-class New York, a society with rules and rituals as rigid as any tribe on earth. In describing his feelings toward the behavior of the characters in the movie, Daniel Day-Lewis said, “These people were savages.”

Part of what made them savage was the same thing that makes the good people standing on the steps of churches in small towns all over America just as savage—the way they treated people who broke the rules. To break idiotic social rules that stand between you and happiness, you have to be brave, and it’s hard to be brave.

If you want to write a novel, there is a ready-made topic here. This problem will never go away, and you can set your novel in any location on earth.

Cartoon of a woman rejecting rules


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Orange Time

Oranges and blossoms on a treeThere was evil climatological talk on the radio this morning. In referring to areas north of us, where the same public ratio station is broadcast, the word “snow” was mentioned as a possible forecast. Maybe just flurries. Maybe not sticking. And OK, north of us. But still, goddamnit.

The sky was gray all day, though it wasn’t actually very cold. Nevertheless, we clearly see that we are into late fall, as the ground is now bestrewn with brown crackling leaves, as twilight creeps over us sooner and sooner, the hills are now painted in dark rusty colors, and more and more trees thrust themselves naked into silhouette. It’s beautiful still, in a contemplative way. Such beauty is more subtle, almost sweet and sad at the same time for its ability to continue to exist, like an underlayer to melancholy.

No more picnics for a while. It is increasingly time to be inside, thinking of root vegetables and sweaters and curling up on the couch to read or write blogs or whatever you do for Übercoziness. Within the last couple of weeks I discovered a writer who has been in front of me for years, who I never paid attention to, even though I was aware of her. At the urging of a friend, I started reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston, and after I had read no more than five pages I thought, “This woman is one of my people.”

There may be a hint here and there in my blog entries that I am partial to language as a source of beauty and intellectual engagement. Whatever other virtues Their Eyes Were Watching God has, it is the language of the book that leaves me completely enthralled, wanting to hug Hurston for all those moments when I softly exclaimed out loud, thinking My God, look at that. Of course I don’t refer merely to her ability to choose vocabulary, but rather to her use of language as an expression of ideas in a striking way. Take the title. It refers to people sitting in the dark, terrified by a storm. Ostensibly they were only looking at darkness, but their eyes were watching God.

In praising the language, I necessarily invoke an aspect of the book that was very controversial when it was published in 1937, and might still be for some people. Hurston grew up in Florida, where the book takes place, and she wrote it in a way to imitate the dialect of the black people who she knew in the small town of Eatonville (a completely black town at that time). Part of her reason for doing this may have been simply her desire as a writer to imitate reality, but she had also done graduate work in folklore at Columbia University, and she published books on folklore, so Hurston may also have wanted as a specialist to capture something of the culture she was describing. As you can imagine, black dialect then—just like now—was regarded as a profoundly ignorant way of speaking, rather than simply different. Many black intellectuals of the time, including male writers, condemned Hurston’s use of dialect as doing nothing to help get blacks out from under the bootheels of white oppressors.

If you read without a prejudice, however, it’s clear that Hurston does not portray her characters as linguistically inept. In fact, their speech is rich and poetic, at times even sublimely beautiful. We might disagree over which lines in particular attain those heights, but I’ll cite a couple. Referring to neighborhood gossips sitting on the porch, Janie says, “Well Ah see Mouth-Almighty is still sittin’ in de same place.” Another character, declaring her ability to keep a secret, says, “Ah just lak uh chicken. Chicken drink water, but he don’t pee-pee.”

As you can see from these quotes, this language can be difficult to read, which makes the book go slower than it might otherwise. In a later blog entry I intend to comment on the idea of using dialect in writing. For now, I’ll just say that Hurston took a big chance writing this way, and her willingness to do so indicates a bravery and commitment to the truth of her writing that I admire. When characters are not speaking, then the book is written in standard educated English, but still with a glorious poetry in the writing, as when Janie is watching the seasons pass: “So Janie waited a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time. But when the pollen again gilded the sun and sifted down on the world she began to stand around the gate and expect things.”

In addition to being a book full of poetry, Their Eyes Were Watching God is well plotted both in terms of external flow of events, creating increasingly dramatic movement toward the end, and in terms of psychological changes in Janie, the main character. This is largely a book about Janie’s growth as a character who discovers herself, who becomes stronger, and who reaches out to take a handful of the world that might otherwise pass her by. The book can thus also be considered a feminist novel from the 30s.

And it is a love story between Janie and a man named Tea Cake. I heard that there are people who dispute the validity of the love between these two people, critics who want to diminish the truth of the relationship that so much of the book centers around.

Maybe people should try being in love before they dismiss it in a novel.

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Days of Light Like Butter

Dike along the Susquehanna River

Dike along the Susquehanna River at Lock Haven

A couple of weeks ago we had a weekend that made you realize why we have seasons. It has nothing to do with circumnavigating the sun, which is merely a mechanism. The autumn season exists so as to occasionally focus down, like a colored jewel, into a day like that. The hillsides that day undulated in their fire-colored decoration, soybeans in the fields eased into gentle yellow, and in a park in the nearby town of Lock Haven, puppies scampered in the grass where people had gathered with their dogs. The sky that day was blue, light poured down like butter, and it was a perfect afternoon to lie on a blanket with someone in that same park, looking at a soybean field a few feet away.

The town of Lock Haven is on the west branch of the Susquehannah River. West “branch” may connote less than should be noted, as it is quite a fine river at that point. It flows along beside one of the long ridges we have here, and on the opposite bank from that hillside, spread along the river, is the town. The town, however, cannot see the river.

Back in the 19th century, when canals were such an important part of American infrastructure (probably before that word was in use), it was common for canals in spots to run along beside rivers. That’s where it was flat for digging them. I’ve seen this to be the case in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Such a canal ran through Lock Haven, and because there was an actual lock on the canal at this location, the town acquired its name of proletarian poetry.

From time to time, as every river in the world will do, the Susquehannah disregards human desires and stretches out to suit itself, if allowed to do so. Until a flood in 1972, Lock Haven was known for having the Piper Cub airplane factory in town, but the flood—brought on by a hurricane—drowned the town and destroyed the factory. Twenty years later (which sounds late, but still useful), an enormous wall of earth was built to cut the town off from the river. The view is gone, but so is the devastation.

A year ago, on another autumn day, I went to Lock Haven, walked along that wall of earth, and then wrote this poem.

The Susquehannah River

I wasn’t even sure we would go.

She was too distracted the day before to talk on the phone.

She was so busy that morning that she asked me to meet her downtown,

where she had work to do.

In fact,

I was sure we would not go.

But then,

she finished her work,

we had breakfast,

and she said “let’s go to Lock Haven”.

By the time we got there,

she seemed relaxed,

which surprised me a little.

I never knew on any given day

how she would be feeling.

Like the wind in central Pennsylvania

she could change directions in one day.

It was bad for people in Lock Haven

to have such a terrible flood in 1972.

It must have been tragic for houses to fill with water,

for the airplane factory to flood so badly

it shut down permanently.

But it was good for us.

After the flood they built an enormous dike between the town and the river,

and on that sunny fall day

we walked along the top,

looking at the peaceful river,

at the colored hill on the other side,

at the light on the water.

And then we sat down right on the sidewalk

that ran along the dike,

leaning against one another,

as she told me about her childhood,

as we watched ducks swimming and diving.

It was another day as sweet as any I have known in my life,

and it reminded me again

that I cannot imagine wanting a life without her.

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How to Install a Water Heater

A cat in a Superman costumeThe yappity-yap-yap group is here at the cafe this morning. The topic of the moment is whether to go look at some chain saws. Male bonding. Any topic that involves refined petroleum products is open for discussion.

And I’m a crank. I know. I don’t care either. I could claim that it’s because I’m a writer, and writers look at the world with a critical eye, and… But would you buy that nonsense? Or I could claim that it’s because I’m 58 years old, because people my age remember how the world was perfect when we were young and now it’s not, and we didn’t screw it up…and…and…you kids take those iPods and get out of my yard.

But the sad fact is that it’s just my flawed quibbling personality, how I’ve always been, as anyone who has known me for years can tell you. Except my mama. She won’t say that. But you know, she’s my mama.

As a crank you get off topic easily. I was going to talk about writing here, about my work on the novel. I hate how slowly I write. It makes me feel stupid. I just started reading George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, and having barely begun the book, one of the things that most strikes me is “Holy moly this book is long!” The same thing, actually, that an insect might notice about a book, if required to eat it.

How did she write such a long book? And it’s just one of several that she authored. I bet she didn’t check her email as often as I do. Would I be wrong in assuming that Mary Ann Evans, the real name of the writer, was not going to work every day? Or spending all day long trying to figure out how to find a job?

So probably Evans spent more than two hours a day writing, or one hour if you don’t count time spent searching for photos of cats wearing Superman costumes. So Evans wrote more diligently, but still, that’s a lot of words. It would sure take me a while. Years. After months of writing, I’m only up to page 100. Double-spaced.

And the way a good writer wrote in those days, it impresses me. Should the judicious writer, imbued by Providence or by natural inclination with a proclivity to examine those questions not likely to course the common trains of daily discourse, to step however haltingly onto the paths of a more rarified intellectual inquiry, seeking those glimmers of brightening wisdom such as are allotted to our faulty capacity…then such a writer should not sit here in this cafe on Saturday mornings and listen to the babble at the next table. Jesus, how can anyone be so passionate about water heaters?

But I think I got off topic there. I wanted to comment on where I’m at with the novel. Benedict and Miramar have returned to the present, to continue their drive across Kansas, which may go for a couple of chapters more until they get to Colorado. They stopped briefly to visit a cathedral in Victoria, Kansas, called the Cathedral of the Plains.

Since they are driving, maybe I should go back and have Benedict drink a bottle of chocolate milk, because that’s what I always do when I’m on a road trip. They also meet a priest who is hitchhiking, and through him they are going to hear a children’s choir sing. In some cases the singing of children can be horrible. For some people, bad singing actually seems to be a desirable quality in children, as if the worse the little angels sing, the more adorable it is. Off key? Awwwww. I’ve never thought of adorableness has having a “please-God-make-me-deaf” quality. But I’m a crank. You already know that.

I got the idea to include a children’s choir this past Sunday in Quaker Meeting, as we were singing. I found myself in the rare situation of not having a songbook, so I just looked around, and I watched the children, seeing their mouths form the words. That vision of children singing, combined with the fact that I liked the song at the time, made me want to do something to capture the moment. Of course, I couldn’t capture the moment—every moment goes away, but I could use it for inspiration.

So I am. Some tiny tiny bit of it will go in the book.

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So Is That 27?

999 slogan on a T shirtIn the last couple of weeks the star of Herman Cain has surprised many people, suddenly shining in the sky of Republican politics. Or maybe it’s been more like a Fourth of July sparkler tossed overhead after a few beers. At any rate, people have been paying attention to Herman Cain—he surpassed Rick Perry, possibly rivaling Mitt Romney in some polls, and I thought it was time to look at some of his political rhetoric. It’s high time, in fact, if I plan to do this, before that star plunges back to earth, which is going to happen fast. What Herman Cain really needed to destroy his campaign was for people to listen to what he is saying.

Cain’s political ideas are most well known for his advocacy of a taxation plan that takes three potential taxes (business, individual income, and a sales tax) and imposes all three on all people at the rate of 9% and 9% and 9%. Naturally in normal speech this quickly turns into the abbreviated form that just names the numbers: 999. Because this is the main thing Cain is currently known for, I’ll keep most of my focus here on his tax and economic rhetoric.

Herman Cain seems to like simplicity, which he has associated with “common sense”. Here are illustrative quotes from his campaign website, followed by my comments.

  • On national security: “National security isn’t about politics. It’s about defending America.”

The words “security” and “defending” connect the two sentences, and the pithiness of the phrase “defending America” makes us almost automatically feel in sympathy. In reality, defending the country means dealing with other countries, joining alliances, and trying to persuade people. At times defense certainly is about politics. The real complexity is reduced to a phrase so simple it actually doesn’t mean much. Here’s another quote from his website: “My foreign policy philosophy is simply: Peace through strength and clarity.” That’s clear. Right?

  • On environmental questions: “Still, liberals continue to perpetuate the misunderstanding that the high energy consumption of a thriving nation and conservation of our precious planet are at odds with one another.”

I’m having to interpret this sentence, but I’m taking it to be a criticism of belief in global climate change (“energy consumption” and “conservation of our…planet”). In this statement, 99% of the world’s environmental scientists are reduced to an American political label: liberals. Again in favor of simplicity, complexity of data and science are reduced to a political opinion.

A man who likes things to be simple has also produced a simple tax plan. Cain himself calls it simple. He has bragged that it’s simple. On his website, among the assertions made of his 999 tax plan, we read that the plan “Is fair, simple, efficient, neutral, and transparent”. That phrase sounds good. How could it not? Or are you one of those people who are against fairness and efficiency? But Herman, what exactly is a “neutral” tax?

Another problem, which is beyond my scope here, is that Cain’s plan is reckoned, by analysis on both the left and right, to give tax breaks to millionaires and raise taxes on almost everyone else. Cain claims this is not true because….la la la la, I can’t hear you. “Some people will pay more,” he said. “But most people will pay less, is my argument.” So if that’s his argument, then it must be true. Stupid economists with their fancy computers and mathematical analysis.

In other economic discussions, on general economic policy, Cain says, in part, “The role of the federal government should be to encourage economic growth by ensuring conditions that will allow businesses to thrive, not just survive. That means less legislation, less regulation, lower taxes and business-friendly policies.” This is fairly standard Republican belief, even if it is all extremely vague, with comparative words like “less” and “lower” and variable words like “thrive” and “business-friendly”.

I find it very interesting that in the midst of his generally laissez-faire philosophies (he refers on the website to the “alleged risks of Wall Street” as if he has never seen a newspaper), Cain’s website makes a nod toward understanding the opposition. We find the phrase “While labor unions once provided a representative body to lobby for fair wages and safe working conditions for employees”, though the current activities of unions are criticized. Similarly, in a discussion on getting rid of regulations, we read “No one is arguing for lead-based paint in toys for kids or unsafe food.”

Rhetorically, these types of acknowledgements can be rather powerful, if carefully done, creating a sense of fairness (one of Aristotle’s basic recommendations for giving the speaker a positive ethos and increasing credibility). This method of recognizing the other side can also make the speaker seem more broad-minded and intelligent. The acknowledgement must seem fairly and honestly done, however, to make it appear that the speaker is truly listening to the other side. Whether that seems true in this case, or any case, may depend on the reader.

In style, I found one sentence that struck me as very well phrased, and rhetorically compelling, in further discussion of regulations. “We pay for regulations with every bite of food we eat, with every drop of gasoline we put in our cars and with every good or service we obtain.” The sentence has three short phrases each introduced by “with every”, so the power of the sentence builds through repetion. The phrases also try to connect with the reader by referring to our most basic biological necessities, food, one of our great social necessities, gas, and then expanding into everything.

If you happen to like Herman Cain, enjoy his brief flight across the sky, because now that he is up there, people are looking at his simple 999 tax plan, and most people are realizing that while simple sounds good in our complicated lives, the largest economy in the world cannot be managed with only three numbers.

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Stampe Hym Downe

Angry man looking at carI’m going to trust my father on this, because he’s a biologist, and that’s a scientist, and science is about truth. He tells me that in some cases when a person has suffered brain damage preventing speech, the person is still able to swear. On a personal note, I’m glad to hear that God can have the mercy to allow swearing in a speechless person, who surely needs it more than most of us. At the same time, this ability raises an interesting question about speech.

In one sense, swear words or phrases are like other words, nothing but noises to which we have socially agreed to assign a meaning. It is deeply fascinating that society has agreed to have words that we do not want to hear. Why does swearing exist?

If you’ve ever tried to repair a mechanical object, of course you will know why. Repairs cannot be made to an object without the proper vocabulary, and if you cannot, for instance, occasionally exclaim to a bolt on a car, “Goddamned son-of-a-bitch, come loose!” then worn out parts would not be replaced. Picture the astronauts unable to repair the space station. Planes would fall from the sky. Coffee makers would cease to brew.

Facetiousness aside—not that I’m being facetious—at the most basic level swearing appears to be an expression of strong emotion. When emotions swell powerful within our souls, swearing sometimes reconnects us with equanimity though regular language does not. What kinds of words are sufficient to let out those emotions? This is very culturally bound, but it looks like the psychological basis for swear words is to transgress into things we should not normally talk about. Three of the most common areas for English are religion (more specifically, blasphemy, which adds the taboo element), sex, and excretory functions.

This use of language probably goes back almost to the advent of language itself. As soon as enough words were in place, maybe 50, someone must have gotten angry and figured out how to connect an irritating Neanderthal neighbor with the need to go off behind the trees now and then, to snarl their equivalent of “you shit!”

When you look up the word “shit” in the Oxford English Dictionary, probably the major dictionary of the English language (twelve large volunes, 600,000 words) one finds that this word is “Not now in decent use”. I wondered whether the Oxford English Dictionary was in error applying the word “now”. One reason to love this dictionary with all your heart is that they give examples of each word, tracing it back to its first recorded use. That means the first time in writing, which has its limits, but still, pretty cool.

The word “shit” can be traced back to at least the Old English period, and in a quote from around the year 1000, it is spelled—as a plural verb form, with an old verb ending—“scittan”.  Other older spellings were: scitte, schit, schyt.

Here are a couple of much later uses:

  • 1508: describing someone irritating but clever: “A schit, but wit”.
  • 1538: (in the original spelling, which mixes up our letters u and v): “Whan ye haue hym in hys graue, Stampe hym downe tyll he shyte.”

In modern form this reads “When you have him in his grave, Stamp him down till he shits.” Somebody really wanted that guy dead. Like some sort of medieval Mafia.

Because the taboo nature of swear words—which are, after all, just noises based on social agreement—will change over time, the shocking thrill I had hearing Archie Bunker say “hell” and “damn” on TV for the first time in the 60s now seems quaint. Now, for example, I would say to a first-grader “Get the hell off the swingset and go get me a damn beer.”

One of the language trends of American culture in the last 50 years, or more, has been a tendency to use every form of taboo word in a broader range. Perhaps an argument could be made that this trend makes us less emotionally constricted by our language, more relaxed, and maybe that’s true. But I think there are two drawbacks, actually contradictory to one another, so maybe they can’t both be true. On the one hand, we hear that accepting the routine use of swear words in movies, at the office, and even on TV, deprives the words of their taboo nature and thus drains them of their strength. It’s an interesting argument. What words will we be able to use to swear? The opposing argument is that flinging these words around ourselves in wide public distribution makes our social life more coarse and crude.

Pertinently on this topic, in the Washington Post on Saturday I found a discussion on a dispute among the staff as to whether to allow obscenities in certain cases. So far, the management says that even a fairly mild term like “hell” hath no place in the sugar sweet purity of the Post.

The British magazine The Economist, an eminently superior publication in terms of writing quality, has, it seems to me, a more mature attitude. The magazine certainly is not filled with swearing, but if a diplomatic source were found to have said, “The Iranians better learn who not to fuck with”, the Economist would use the quote as a meaningful part of the story. In many American publications, an article on this topic would be much less powerful, avoiding the language that gave the diplomatic source its force.

Even worse, some publications might allow the quote as “learn who not to f— with”, using a pathetic hint at the word without actually using it. In that case, why don’t we just crawl around on the floor and admit we’re children? I used to tell any student who might do this, “If you truly need to say fuck, then don’t be coy about it. If you do not need to, then don’t.”

And if he did not take my advice, I would stampe hym downe.


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In the Year of Grace

Market in Addis Ababa

Market in Addis Ababa

Many people may not know that the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who lived from 1860 to 1904, was a physician. One of his more well-known quotes even refers to this fact: “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.” Nowadays he is less well-known as a doctor—all of his patients are dead now—but when people talk about playwrights, Chekhov is considered one of the major names in the world of the theater. I find it worth noting that even someone who attained such renown at one point considered abandoning the theater when one of his plays was a failure.

Given the dubious nature of the writing profession, a smart writer might get a real job as well, and a number of notable writers have been doctors:

  • Mikhail Bulgakov—a fabulous Russian writer who is not so well known in the U.S.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle—yep, the Sherlock Holmes guy
  • William Carlos Williams—American poet who wrote the famous little poem about the plums in the icebox
  • Sir Thomas Browne—author of a cool book in 1643 called Religio Medici, quickly banned by the Catholic church, certainly something to be proud of there

Another name on the list is Abraham Verghese. He was born of parents from India, grew up in Ethiopia, became an expert on AIDS practicing in Tennessee, and now works as a Professor of medicine at Stanford University. Verghese is known for his work as a physician, but his writings have also gained him a fairly prominent literary reputation.

Something that appeals greatly to me about the book Cutting for Stone is the exuberant exoticism. Verghese clearly has drawn on his own biography and then fictionalized it, sometimes a bit, mostly a lot. Perhaps for a person like Verghese, who has personal memories of walking the streets of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, the book is partly like a memoir of childhood. But I haven’t been there and a text that can bring a foreign place vividly into the mind can be strangely compelling. Most of the book unwraps its onion-like layers in Addis Ababa, but with sections also set in India and in America, mostly in New York City.

The book is told in first person, but it is a very expansive sort of first person, with the narrator presumed to have learned things later in order to now tell them to us. Thus the book opens with rather a long narrative of events preceding the narrator’s birth, told in such a way that the reader is immersed in the events being narrated. This interesting literary device of “here’s what people were doing and saying before I was born” can be found in other books, even in the first parody of a novel, Tristram Shandy (1759). A writer may do this well or unwell. Verghese tells the story with a strong sense of dramatic flow, sometimes dense with detail. Listen to the first sentence of the book: “After eight months spent in the obscurity of our mother’s womb, my brother, Shiva, and I came into the world in the late afternoon of the twentieth of September in the year of grace 1954.”

How many things just in that opening sentence are worth noting as examples of the writer’s skill? Note the addition of the word “obscurity” to refer to the womb. It is not, strictly speaking, a necessary word, and it adds a kind of mysticism to the routine fact of being there. Note also the choice of name for the twin brother, Shiva, a Hindu god of destruction and renewal. At the end of the sentence, the phrase “year of grace” is itself a kind of graceful flourish of language.

The basic narrative flow of the book is one that has been used a million times, but always interesting when well done—the development of a person, as we watch the changes in their life, the emotional and intellectual growth. If you are partial to fancy-pants literary terminology drawn from foreign languages, it is a Bildungsroman. So the narrator is born, grows up, becomes a man, and as Joseph Campbell describes in Hero With a Thousand Faces, we have in Cutting for Stone a perfect example of the circular journey of the hero on a quest.

In addition to being dense with locales and details that aid those locales, this book is rich in characters, a greater sign of a strong writer. At least for me, many of these characters, even the lesser ones, were developed as distinctive people who came alive. At the same time, a quirky eccentricity runs through the book, so that while the characters do seem real, they also evoke the uncontainable diversity of human experience that Latin magical realism tries to capture. Another element of the book that I found appealing was the fact that a few times Verghese touches strings of history, setting further layers of depth humming below the story.

One element of the book that some readers might object to (though I certainly did not) is that in drawing on his own background as a physician, Verghese has endowed this book with plenty ‘o medical talk. The book is filled with doctors, and clearly only someone who really knows medicine well could have written all these descriptions. More than once he turns medical events into dramatic plot elements.

But here’s what you really should know about this book. It’s interesting. It’s fun to read.



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This Is Going in a Book, So It’s All True

Whale coming out of the water

Near Kansas City

In the process of writing a novel, I’ve noticed several problems. First, I’m writing it. I don’t mean I don’t like writing it. My involvement is actually more of a problem for the novel than for me. Other than relying on the kindness of strangers (and friends) to give me advice and critiques, the book can only be what I make it. And when I gaze ahead to see where the book is going, I see blank…empty…nothingness. Yonder all before me lie, deserts of vast eternity. Then I think “Oh my God, what the hell goes there?”

Where does a novel come from, anyway? It’s like I’m just making stuff up here.

As I’m writing the book, I have two friends reading bits as I give it to them. Patient, stoic friends…saints actually, wearing ragged garments in the wilderness, reading aloud to the birds, poring through the kind of false starts, sloppy wording, and weak characterization that no writer would actually want people to read. It is the job of my friends to tell me exactly where and how I’m a crappy writer. Without this noble service to art, no book achieves its highest level of perfection. The writer alone cannot do it, though there are no doubt plenty of writers whacking away at their hubristic keyboards.

Here is a second problem with my writing this book. I am lazy and I want to have fun writing it. If I were to slow down and do a really good job, that would require extensive thought, careful research, meticulous placement of detail, deep pondering of the psychology of characters, and tedious excision of banal language, worn cliches, and faded metaphors. Who wants to do all that when instead I could just type faster?

More than once it has been pointed out to me that some scenes might benefit from more description, to provide a better sense of the place. Oy, I know. And I could just create things, you know, fiction and all that, except I’m using real locations. I had Benedict and Miramar stop in Kansas City, a place I’ve never been and scarcely ever thought about. Did you know the city is full of fountains? Man, what you can learn on the internet. But I didn’t mention that fact in the novel, because once you start looking up stuff about Kansas City, the fountain data starts to seem like obvious information. I figured it would look like I wasn’t even trying if I used it, just took the first thing Google said. Instead, while my characters were in Kansas City I had them take a boat out to go whale watching. I guess Kansas City is near the ocean. Isn’t it?

And they’re driving across Kansas at the moment (when they’re not in the past, I mean). I could of course just say they’re driving across Kansas. But it would be a little more interesting to have some description of what they see as they’re driving. Everyone knows Kansas has tornados and little dogs, but what else?

Actually, the spot at which I’ve been writing for the past couple of weeks is St. Louis, in the 1876 part of the book. Perhaps I have more free reign here to lie like a Presidential candidate. Who could contradict me, other than historians, and seriously, who are you going to believe, an established historian who has published books and articles on 19th century America, or a slightly dissipated writer who thinks Kansas City is on the Pacific coast? I think we can agree on this.

I did, however, look at a good many old photographs of St. Louis. Did you know people wore hats back then? Wow, who knew? I guess that should be in the book, huh? Or maybe they didn’t wear hats. You’re not going to go look it up, are you? Actually, all the men wore floral print scarves.

In talking last night with one of the friends who is reading the book, I said that a problem I’m having is with the logistics of taking Benedict and Miramar back and forth between the present and the past. That might seem simple to you. To make it more complicated, they can only remain in the past for 24 hours at a time. The reason for that limit is actually for the convenience of the novel. If they could just go and stay as long as they want, then there would be no back and forth as they cross the country in each direction, and thus a basic structural idea for the book would not exist. But it’s a struggle to continually figure out how to make the transfer work. They have to use special time doors, and they have to find them, blah blah blah. As my friend pointed out last night, that struggle with logistics will probably remain until the end of the book.

So I need to add more detail. And develop the characters more. And add style. And start using commas. Had I but world enough, and time, I’m sure I could do this.

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But Did You Like the Book?

A smiling dogWhile cooking dinner, I thought of starting this blog entry with a recipe, because I can. That whim has passed, but my, it was a delicious meal, with a soy sauce/lime/garlic reduction on salmon, served on sauteed kale. A meal so good should be celebrated, so I ended it with two squares of dark chocolate. It’s an ambiguous celebration, however, since every evening meal ends with dark chocolate.

A wonderful meal is a goal of most human beings, as we take so much pleasure from food. It is a pleasure we see on the face of a sated baby falling back from the mother’s nipple, and on the face of a ninety-year-old woman turning her wrinkled lips up into a smile with a mouthful of cake. Food is one of the most obvious sources of pleasure, available when other pleasures may be missing (which can also have its dark side).

As a species we’re not alone in seeking pleasure. We see that chimpanzees seek food, sex, a warm spot in the sun. So do dogs and cats. How far down the chain does it go? Pleasure seeking is inherent in our physical, biological existence. It’s very human. There are also grim religions that claim—yea, that proclaim—their horrible, twisted theology telling us that pleasure does not belong in a moral life. That too is human. Dogs are not so stupid.

Because humans are also capable of thought and analysis and the meticulous parsing of words, representing some subtlety of ideas, we can talk about the nature of pleasure. With the help of language we can climb into towers of abstraction, to look far down below at people eating peaches and dancing to Lady Gaga, petting horses and planting lilies, whatever gives them pleasure. There must not always be enough oxygen up in those towers, because once we get up there, we also sometimes talk about things like pleasure with such obtuse language, in such a dry manner, that it becomes boring.

Then down from the towers come the intellectuals, some of them home to write books. Some will write books of philosophy. We know those books will be serious and heavy and perhaps influential and just barely readable, if at all. Other writers will write essays, intended to teach us wisdom, like Francis Bacon, the first official English essayist, or to provoke us into the irony of modern wisdom, while denying doing any such goddamn thing, like Hunter Thompson. Well, he’s not exactly an essay writer.

Here in our modern literary world, in the last few years the personal memoir has become very common. (Not that humans follow fads like sheep orienting themselves to the rump in front of them. We’re intellectuals. We don’t do that.) The purpose of a memoir is…I don’t know. I don’t know what the purpose is. I suppose it’s a combination of something like Francis Bacon’s essays, saying “I have lived and pondered and learned things, and here is some of my wisdom”, but presented in a literary format that is intended to be entertaining.

One step beyond the memoir, which is writing in a literary fashion about a real life, is fiction. The “memoirs” that are actually lies are obviously trying to jump on a fad for the sake of publication, because fiction admits that it is lying. That’s why I love it. I am a professional liar—or I mean I would be if I got paid.

I think it was Aristotle (let’s just pretend I’m getting this right) who said that fiction is lies that tell the truth. In fact, in Plato’s day fictional stories were often presented in the form of poetry, and in the purity of his totalitarian perfect government, embodied in The Republic, Plato wished to ban poets because they are liars.

Here’s the point I’ve been aiming at all along. I took a long path and got caught in some briars and I followed a sheep for a while, but anyway, we’re here. Is giving pleasure an essential function of fiction? Even a fictional work can provide various forms of mental stimulation, and for me it even becomes boring if a variety of books does not give me such variety. From fiction we may learn new things, we may vicariously experience lives and places we wouldn’t otherwise know, we may be exposed to ideas that expand us. But these things can all be done without also providing pleasure for its own sake.

There will be different philosophies of literature. Here is mine. A work of fiction must entertain to be a well written book. All the other possible benefits of a book can be achieved while also entertaining. To do otherwise in a work of fiction is a sign of a weak or lazy writer. I would even go so far as to argue, from a rhetorical point of view (a point I have made to students) that entertainment has a rhetorical function. If people are bored and quit listening, you aren’t saying anything to them.

When I say that fiction must entertain, I don’t mean that every book should be Mary Poppins, or the modern version, Harry Potter. There is more than one kind of pleasure: the interest of a story, the clever layers of allusion to things outside the book, playing with language. However it is done, though, the best fiction must give pleasure. If not, why was it written as fiction in the first place?

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Oh God, Another Writer

Baby with a bookFlannery O’Connor, a fellow writer from Georgia (whose grave I visited down in Milledgeville, Georgia), was once asked whether she felt that universities stifle writers. She replied, “My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” O’Connor died in 1964, and even in the early part of last century, she saw so much bad writing that she felt moved to create a famous quote. She was not speaking out of jealousy toward competition. She was already successful, and as the quote continues, “There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

I don’t know whether the situation has changed since O’Connor said that. I have almost no real information to compare, and therefore I have a firm and irrevocable opinion. It’s worse now. To exaggerate somewhat (i.e. “a lot”), now everyone is a writer. What qualifications does one need to be a writer? (1) Know the alphabet, (2) Be able to compose sentences, (3) Know a few stories. Well, that’s pretty much everyone, isn’t it, including a few of the smarter breeds of dog.

In fact, in a modern society, with rare sad exceptions, everyone does have the capacity to create written text. Recent technology has made this even easier. With computer memory, a text does not have to be typed over and over; with cut and paste and delete, changes can be made quickly; with printers new copies can be made instantly; and with things like…um…blogs, we can even publish ourselves.

And so we have writing groups and writing conferences and writing programs and college degrees in creative writing, which is surely one step above a Bachelor’s degree in witchcraft for a functional college degree. (And OK, I apologize to my friends who have such a degree.)

If I had never been in any writers’ groups I might be less cynical, more ensconced in my naive literary world, believing that people who write generally have some ability and take it seriously. But I’ve been in meetings where someone would say something like, “I’d like to write a book and I’m here to find out more about how to do that.” Or I attended an open reading of writers at which one woman, reading from her “children’s book” used a sock puppet on one hand to supplement the high, squeaky voice she used while reading.

And of course I’ve met people who “want to write” or even go so far as to say that they do, but after a couple of years one learns to stop asking them about it, as it’s clear that it is only talk. Of course they can still tell you why they aren’t writing at the moment. It’s difficult. There’s no time. Etc. I know it’s difficult, but a serious writer, working two jobs, with no computer and a broken hand, would steal the paper, write with one hand, and do without sleep in order to write.

As Flannery O’Connor indicated, there are also people who do finish and even publish what they write, though without the love of craft or respect for the medium that she believed should be applied. When we look out at the clattering keyboards of the world, there are many writers and partial writers and pseudo-writers and kinda-wanna be writers out there.


Every third person you meet doesn’t talk about being a sculptor. A person might bang around on a guitar without claiming to be a musician (alright, other than in rock and roll). So why writing? Writing actually does capture two essential qualities that are of the essence of being human. Writing involves the use of language, and in one sense or another (even in a business letter) it tells stories. There is no one over the age of two years old who does not use language to tell stories. All human beings can relate to this.

So multitudes are going to write, especially as our technology and social structures have given them more ability to do so. And there is nothing that snobs like me can do about it. So sock puppets of the world, unite! Cause you can, like, tell stories and stuff.

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