Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Ayatollah From Pennsylvania

Rick Santorum with a haloPeople in Iran by law have to follow particular religious rules. That’s how it is in a theocracy, someone forces you to practice religion according to their rules. It was the same in medieval Italy when Popes ruled as secular rulers. Now we have someone who wants to bring that kind of government to the United States.

In article 6 of the U. S. Constitution, there are three sentences (usually referred to as clauses). The third clause reads: “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

I have quoted the clause in full, but the part of interest here is the ending. “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

The Constitution clearly states that being a member of any particular religion should never be a requirement for being elected in this country. Like very many people these days who call themselves conservative, Rick Santorum doesn’t give a shit what the Constitution says. Santorum wants the country to be governed by religious rules that he personally chooses, and he thinks that candidates for office should be a particular type of Christian.

Although Santorum went to college (here at Penn State, as a matter of fact), he must not have taken many history classes. He apparently never heard of the religious wars in England, of people with limited civil rights because of their religion, or of people being tied to stakes and burned alive because of their religion. Unlike Rick Santorum, our Founding Fathers did study history, and there was a reason they insisted on no state religion. Santorum, however, has said, “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

His gross lack of historical knowledge has even led him to say, “The idea that the Crusades and the fight of Christendom against Islam is somehow an aggression on our part is absolutely anti-historical.” The ignorance here is breathtaking. Aside from the fact that Crusaders paused while they were still in Europe to kill Jews, the very first Crusade included a famous massacre of many citizens of Jerusalem. Rick Santorum clearly has strong opinions about religion, but just as clearly he has no interest in real facts, whether they concern other countries or our own Constitution.

In addition to his historical ignorance, it is typical of the grandiose arrogance of Rick Santorum that he believes any religious belief other than his own is absolutely wrong. It’s not even enough to be Christian—you have to believe exactly as he does. In his connection of religion and politics he has said, “But is there such a thing as a sincere liberal Christian…Is that really Christian? That’s a bigger question for me. And the answer is, no, it’s not.” Anyone who is not conservative, as he defines himself, cannot even call themselves Christian. Why not? Because Rick Santorum says so.

Similarly, he recently referred to Obama having a “a phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible.” When challenged on this, Santorum claimed that he was not referring to religion in that case, but just to some kind of belief, as if he does not know the meaning of the word “theology” (or the word “Bible”). Or maybe he just thought we are all so dumbfoundingly stupid that we would believe him.

According to Santorum, it is not just Obama among his political opponents who has a “phony theology”. Romney, as a Mormon, belongs to a religion that Santorum says can “threaten traditional Christianity”, and Santorum called Mormonism “a dangerous cult”. What he is trying to do here is use religion to condemn the two men who are most likely to stand in his way on the road to the White House. The 6th Article of the Constitution be damned.

Opinion polls show that there is a high level of religious belief in this country, but like many politicians, Santorum will simply make up facts, knowing that most people will never know he has done so. Thus he can make a statement like “When you marginalize faith in America” as if religion is under attack in this country. In reality, people are remarkably free to practice religion in America, but when conservatives these days repeat this “religion under attack” motif, what they really mean is we’re not allowed to force other people to follow our religion.

With such an arrogant, intolerant religious attitude, any attempt to protect all religions is claimed to be an attack on Christianity (usually spoken of in coded language simply as “religion” in general—but the audience knows what they mean, wink wink). Santorum thus refers to “the path of President Obama and his overt hostility to faith in America”. Notice that Santorum uses code there—faith—rather than refer to protecting all religions from the domination of one version of Christianity.

In addition to his famous homophobia, one aspect of Santorum’s medieval religious beliefs that has recently gotten a lot of publicity is his declaration that birth control is wrong. He said of this that “Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that’s okay, contraception is okay. It’s not okay.” As a holy warrior, Santorum literally wants to control how people have sex.

Because Santorum is a Catholic, some might see the theocracy he wants to impose on the United States as the teachings of the Catholic Church. While any theocracy is a bleak and hopeless prospect (ask the people living now in Iran), in fact Santorum does not truly follow Catholic teaching. The Catholic Church is very clear in opposing the death penalty, but Santorum supports it. Exactly as he does with the U. S. Constitution, Santorum picks and chooses which parts of Catholic doctrine he happens to like.

On January 1, 1802, Thomas Jefferson, one of the most prominent of the Founding Fathers, wrote in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”

In 2012, Rick Santorum wants to rule us through laws based on his personal religion.

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Flying Through the City

Blue embroidery angelI went yesterday to the campus, or since this is Penn State, maybe that should be The Campus, where I went to some of the agriculture buildings to look for individual departments. If you know nothing, like I do, then you might imagine, as I did, that the College of Agriculture would have only one department, the Department of Growing Stuff. It turns out they have many more.

My purpose there yesterday, and today, and tomorrow, was and will be to find the individual departments, to put a flyer into the mailbox of all the professors, advertising that I can edit their writing. It is possible, I’ve learned, to be (as one example) a very good food scientist but a little weak on some aspects of writing. So far I’ve distributed between 200 and 300 flyers, and I can see that for the university as a whole, it will be many hundreds more. And we’ll see what comes of it.

My point, however, is that while on campus yesterday I saw both yellow and purple flowers blooming. Very pretty. In February. In Atlanta, where I lived for 10 years, that’s normal, though not here. While I was living in Atlanta, way down yonder at the bottom of the country, I wrote a poem that I continue to be fond of. The poem lies below this paragraph, way down yonder at the bottom of the page.

Embroidery at Night

When on a night like this
Mama Rosa sits in the kitchen with the fan whirring
eating cold plums by the light of the fridge,
resting her tired feet
and thinking about her son’s wedding in two weeks;

When on a night like this
Julie stands dreaming on a concrete balcony
in the warm autumn air,
thinking about love and kisses and thrilling secrets
and whether to get her hair cut
or just to curl it;

When on a night like this
Christine drives a police car slowly down Buford Highway,
talking about her mysterious husband
wanting to divorce her
then move to Paris and paint,
while her partner watches the jewels of city lights in the distance;

When on a night like this
Sammy plays pool downtown with Prince on the speakers,
takes a drink of warm beer,
makes a shot and another and another,
laughs and drinks more beer
and acts like he’s the prince himself;

When on a night like this
Tanya, who once taught literature with shining eyes in Kharkov,
is putting her two daughters to bed
telling them about Vanya the Fool,
only they want to hear about Snow White in English;

When on a night like this
you’re probably on the couch watching TV after supper,
working on the embroidery your grandmother taught you,
rubbing your cat with your feet
and drawing out an angel in the cloth;

Then on a night like this
I want to tell Mama Rosa
to eat all the plums she wants
because life is short—
I want to tell Julie
to ignore pain and fear
and to rush headlong into love—
I want to tell Christine in the police car
that no suffering can be so great
it can’t pass—
I want to tell Sammy
to have another beer
and what a great shot he made—
I want to tell Tanya
that English is a fine language
and at least her girls are healthy and happy—
and I want to tell you
that your angel
is made with an angel’s hands.

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To Thicken the Plot, Add Cornstarch

Drunk men falling down

Practicing yoga after drinking beer

This morning I went for a run at 7:00, and afterward I could feel my thighs more than normally. I ascribe those hints of fire in the muscles to the fact that three days ago I had my first yoga class. On the other hand, it was three days ago. What am I, some kind of weird wimp? At any rate, I had a class, and here is a random (really random) selection of some things I learned: (1) Some people are waaay more limber than me. (2) It’s possible to stand completely still—except when you’re falling down—in one position after another, until sweat drips off you, you’re breathing hard, and you hope no one is looking at you. (3) My sense of balance might not be as good as I’d wish. (4) I think I did well on the part where you just lie on your mat afterward. I could develop that.

I like the fact that there is a bit of poetry in the language of yoga practice. If you are a true yogatron, then you know this far better than I do, in which case please do not interrupt me here with actual knowledge. The different poses have names, and I think we did Smoochie Mouse, Imperious Snake, and Lick Your Elbow. I might not be remembering the names perfectly. Or even slightly.

Although they asked me if I would be in a video on how not to do yoga, I’m going to keep doing it. I even went yesterday and bought myself a birthday present, a yoga mat. I got the really nice one, with a cup holder so that my beer doesn’t spill while I’m getting healthy and spiritual and stuff.

I have a goal today to do more than blow a lot of time away on blog fluff. I need to go to the grocery store. Maybe I’ll need a nap. As you can see, it’s looking like a pretty full schedule there. Also on the checklist of things to do is “Work on marvelous novel that will someday be famous”. So I need to get around to that too.

I’ve been on a good roll with the writing lately, and the story has been moving, with less screaming and glasses of Scotch and threats to kill myself. That’s when you know you’re in the zone with your fiction writing. All of the action of the book for the last several chapters has been in the past (1876, if you haven’t paid close attention), and the book is almost 180 pages now. We left Vandalia, Illinois, and took the train to Indianapolis, to stay for a bit. On the train I’ve had them meet a Polish nobleman, who invites Benedict to stop in Indianapolis for a high-stakes poker game, though I have some surprises planned.

I’m looking for ways to add more drama to the book, which is not really the point, as this is not a book about the plot. The real purpose of this book is the entertainment (if there is any) of reading about one adventure after another, and with a mix of character types moving through. Still, it seems to me that the book is more likely to be successful if I can create a little “plot-ness” to pull the reader forward. Having at least some dramatic sections may add another layer of interest, so that one might read on several levels: to see what the characters are doing, to see what new adventures come along, to see how the dilemmas of the plot get solved.

Good strong plots, a real ability to tell stories—these are not my natural strengths. With enough thought and anguish and threats to kill myself I can come up with plots, but sometimes I can’t believe how hard it is. I’m sure there are writers who are natural story tellers, and occasionally I wish I was one. I’ve got a few plot tricks in mind that I’ll try along the way for this book. Benedict and Miramar could meet a conman or thieves, they can get stuck in the past for a while, they can get separated in the past so that Benedict loses Miramar and has to find her. Maybe I’ll think of other things. Maybe I’ll even think of good things.

If I don’t, I’ll kill myself. Or I’ll just do yoga, which might have the same effect.

/by the way/ I think I have a ghost in the apartment, though I’m told there aren’t any ghosts. So maybe my sweater just crawled up off the back of the chair and dropped onto the floor by itself. That can happen, right? But I didn’t see it happen, only heard it hit the floor, then looked afterward.

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We May Not Actually Be Here

Egyptian sky goddess

Egyptian sky goddess with stars on her body

According to the automatic counter on the WordPress website, this is the 100th blog entry on Write or Take a Nap? What is it about the number 100? The two zeros? Maybe they look like eyes, so 100 is the first number we can look at face-to-face. Or maybe it’s just because 100 contains ten tens, and we have ten fingers, so we can relate to it corporeally. It’s sort of like us…but ten times better. In any case, this is 100. And my birthday is in two days. So send me ten dollars.

I’m going to take this grandly numbered blog to write on something different from language and writing. Instead my topic is something everyone has thought about: where do human beings come from? (I mean before the stork brings them.) There are many lovely myths from around the world, any one of them as good as any other, such as the Maori story that a father sky and mother earth created other gods, leading to even further creation. One of the ancient Egyptian myths is similar but reverses the gender, with a sky mother and earth father.

But where I live the two most common explanations for our existence are the Jewish/Christian story described in Genesis and the scientific explanation of the Big Bang and evolution. Because large numbers of people apparently cannot comprehend symbolism (or have too little imagination to accept it as part of their religion), many Christians have decided that the scientific explanation contradicts Genesis. Although the Rejectionists would never admit it, they take the point of view that God is limited, and it isn’t possible for God to have used evolution to create human beings. But if God is all powerful, as they also say, then of course it’s possible.

Even in refusing to accept scientific explanations, the Rejectionists don’t like to admit being so foolish as to ignore science just because it doesn’t suit them, so they say they have a different “theory” and rename their religious story Creationism. I don’t know whether anyone is fooled by this, but no one follows Creationism who is not also a Christian.

Leaving aside the fake science, there are two basic ideas where I live. In one, God created everything almost instantly by declaring it with language, and in the other things happened gradually through random physical processes.

For me, neither explanation of our origin sufficiently accounts for the complexity of a human being. I’m not so stupid as to be a Rejectionist, and I recognize that with the information we have at the moment, the best explanation that seems to make all the pieces fit together is evolution.

Where I begin to have a problem with the evolution explanation is when I look at the functioning of a single cell. The complexity is staggering. According to the National Institutes of Health, it is estimated that each cell contains something like 10 billion molecules of protein, of 10,000 different types of protein. The energy used by our bodies is from a molecule called ATP, and it is also estimated that each cell has one billion molecules of ATP, which is completey used up and replaced every one to two minutes.

The facts in that paragraph far surpass what any person can mentally grasp, except as a very abstract idea, but those facts don’t even begin to touch the real complexity. All 10,000 of those proteins are being constantly created, modified, or dismantled. The proteins are also made only as needed, so the cell has some way of “knowing” and “deciding” to create a protein. The process of making a protein is extremely complex, beginning with uncoiling the DNA, pulling apart the two strands, and making a copy of part of one of them. The entire process is too complicated to discuss here.

model of protein molecule

Colored model of protein molecule

DNA is made of four elements, yet it can carry the information to encode probably hundreds of thousands of different proteins. Where do these molecules—DNA, proteins, ATP—come from? How did this inconceivably complicated set of interactions come to be? Did God say, “Let all this vast complexity suddenly exist”? Or did atoms randomly bumping up against one another gradually turn into DNA and thousands of proteins?

At least at the cellular level, neither one of those explanations makes sense to me. But honestly, I don’t think any explanation could ever work for me—none of it sounds possible. And the sky goddess told me I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.

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Spirits of the North

Sheep in a road in Scotland

Come to Scotland

There is a woman sitting in a coffee shop, apparently in her mid-20s, drinking a very large latte with vanilla flavoring. Not that it’s relevant to our purposes here, but she also happens to be a student in food science, with a particular interest in the role of bacteria to make cheese. More to our purpose is the fact that she is reading the novel Eva Moves the Furniture, by Margot Livesey. The young woman is very close to the end of the novel as she sips her coffee and reads.

The cafe where the woman is reading is in an old house where every room on the ground floor has been converted into seating, aside, of course, from the kitchen and the counter that is lined with pastries. There are chairs at small tables, a few comfortable stuffed chairs, two couches in different rooms, paintings and odd plaster figures on the walls, and music by a female ballad singer coming from the speakers in the ceiling.

In a different room, on the old yellow couch, sits a bearded man apparently in his 40s. By coincidence he is also reading Eva Moves the Furniture, except he has only read 17 pages. Since we said something about the young woman, we may as well say that the man is a building inspector for the city, but in his real life he plays bagpipes because his grandfather was Scottish. The man is reading this novel because someone told him that it takes place in Scotland.

Eva Moves the Furniture is set in Scotland before, during, and shortly after World War II, partly in a couple of small villages and partly in Glasgow. The man with the Scottish grandfather will like the place references, though the places mostly remain background to the story. The young woman, well ahead of where he is reading, is finding herself surprised by the ending, which adds additional drama to what she expected.

Good or bad, a little extra drama at the end of a book is a common technique for many writers. One of the recent books I wrote about here, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, created a very dramatic scene to end the book, and I currently contemplate how to do something similar for the book I’m writing. (Hmm, is it somehow significant that literally as I’m typing these words, a Scottish band, the Trashcan Sinatras, has come on the radio?)

Just like The Hummingbird’s Daughter, Eva Moves the Furniture follows the story of a woman from birth into young adulthood. Because Eva tells her own story, the author gained the benefit of immediacy, which is good for character development, but since the point of view is limited to what the character can know, the author must work with that boundary in telling the story. Both at the beginning and end of the book, however, the author used some imagination to push against that restriction.

The use of first-person has especially pleased the young woman in the cafe, and she has enjoyed hearing the story told by Eva in her own voice, so that the reader gets a close feeling for Eva and her view of the world, with her hopes and fears. What the woman reading in the cafe does not like, however, is feeling at the end that Eva seems distant from her husband, as if he becomes a kind of background character. Perhaps it’s a flaw in the book, but perhaps not a major flaw if the telling of the story until that point has been captivating.

The author has also chosen another literary device that the young woman found entertaining, though it meant less to her than it is going to mean to the man on the couch (once he reads far enough to get to it). This book has ghosts. They accompany Eva throughout her life, and they have an impact on her life. The middle-aged man can relate to ghosts more than a young person can, and he will especially like the fact that the author knew enough to do more with the ghosts than simply have them appear.

Neither of these readers gives much thought to the style of writing, which is generally rather straightforward in relating the story, without any strong tendency to linguistic sparklers or cannon blasts of metaphor. Neither does the writing style try to experiment, as the story itself is expected to carry the book. The future food

Scottish cheese and drinks

No, really, come to Scotland

scientist finishes the book, takes a final sip of her coffee, then stands to go home, knowing she needs to study. On the way out, she is very surprised to see a man reading the very same book she is holding.

“Oh!” she says, “I just finished that book in the other room! Do you like it?”

“So far,” he replies, looking up. “I just started it.”

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I Don’t Make Sense, But I Really Love Babies!

Politician kissing unhappy babyRecently I wrote that Newt Gingrich is trying to create a rhetorical frame of Mitt Romney as a super rich guy who is out of touch with normal people. Shouldn’t be that hard to do. I want to write again about controlling the frame that affects the way we think about things in politics, and I’ll also talk about other rhetorical techniques here.

Within the past week I read a newspaper article that talked about framing in terms of what Obama might face in the election. Democrats and Republicans will obviously want to use different frames. In some cases the difference can sound subtle, yet it has an effect. The usefulness of the frames, for the most part, is only for persuading people who are in the middle and might vote either way. For people who are absolutely committed to one party or the other, there’s nothing much to say, except “Hooray for our side!”

For those persuadable voters, from the Republican point of view, the best frame is “Do you like Obama and what he has done, or do you have problems with him?” Many people have been unhappy with Obama, and I’m not talking about the dumbass fringe who hate him merely because he’s a black un-American communist Muslim. I mean people who actually use their brains, and who have honest complaints about the policies of the president. If the frame of discussion can be set up as to whether we are happy with the president or not, chances are increased for voters who are unhappy to say, “Well, maybe a change would be better.” And of course, the way to get that change is to vote Republican.

For Democrats, the best frame for voters in the middle is “Do you like Obama or do you like Romney?” Oooo…we have to like Romney to vote for him? Because that’s walking farther uphill. Within this frame the question is no longer just about Obama, but about giving more serious thought to what it means to choose the other side. The advantage to Democrats of such a frame is that the negative qualities about Romney become more relevant as a reason not to vote for him, and therefore, presumably, to vote for Obama.

The idea of rhetorical frames has been discussed by George Lakoff, a modern scholar of language and rhetoric. Let’s go back a little and look at the ideas of another scholar of rhetoric—Aristotle. From Aristotle we have ways of talking about rhetoric that are enormously influential 2,500 years later, represented by the three ancient Greek words logos, pathos and ethos as methods of persuasion. For rhetoric scholars the words are a kind of technical jargon, but for regular people these words can be translated rather well as “logic”, “emotion”, and “credibility”.

We are in the field of politics in this blog entry, so logic hardly enters into it, other than to note its frequent absence. In this sense, “logic” as a method of persuasion can mean either connecting ideas in a “logical” way, or it can mean giving detailed factual information, such as what a politician intends to do. Politicians are famous for not being very specific on what exactly they want to do and how, because the moment they provide that information, their opponents will attack them.

One of the most common methods in politics for trying to persuade is with pathos, or emotion. This is why every politician appears in front of giant flags and why they all talk about how much they love the country. Emotional appeals are also why every politician talks over and over about how pro-family they are and how they support “family values” (whatever the hell that is), even when the policies they propose actually make it harder for families, like lack of health care. Another example of emotional appeal over logic is opposing abortion while also opposing birth control and sex education, which would prevent pregnancies that might be aborted. But recognizing these facts would be logic, and of course we’re avoiding that. Politicians rely so heavily—intensely, in fact—on emotion because it works. People respond to it, and emotion is extremely persuasive, with very little logic involved.

One of the most important methods of persuasion in politics is ethos, or credibility. If a person is smart and logical and says good things, but no one believes them, then nothing that is said matters. All effective rhetoric begins with the audience being willing to listen. That is the idea behind ethos. Politicians know this, and in our political system, it is possible to win by making the other side lose.

The need for credibility is the reason for what we call either “negative campaigning” or “mudslinging”, using methods that attack the credibility of other candidates. Attempting to diminish the credibility of the other side is enormously powerful, and it has always been used. When Thomas Jefferson ran for office, his opponents wanted to claim that he was not religious enough, so they called him an “infidel”. When Grover Cleveland ran in 1884, to refer to the fact that he had an illegitimate child, his opponents chanted, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?”

So when Newt Gingrich says that Mitt Romney is a “Massachusetts liberal” or tries (rather weirdly) to say that Obama is a Kenyan, he is attacking their ethos, a time-honored, if nasty, political technique. Voters may sometimes hate the mudslinging and not knowing what a politician really will do in office, but politicians are using what works. We complain, but these things affect how we vote.

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Will You Marry Me, Miss?

Barbie and Ken dolls getting marriedTwo English words began to die during the 1970s, and good riddance. They aren’t dead entirely, but they’re moving into the sort of antiquated vocabulary we see only in novels.

The dying words—which still aren’t dead enough to suit me—are written as abbreviations, addressing women: Mrs. (pronounced “misiz) and Miss. Both of these words have the same source, coming from the older word “mistress”, which was a female counterpart to the word “master”. Oddly, Mrs. has a period indicating an abbreviation, but Miss does not.

I suppose even fairly young people are still aware of the meaning of these words, knowing that Mrs. is a title for a woman who is married, and Miss addresses a woman who is not. If we were a culture that had such dual terms for both men and women, indicating in both cases whether the person is married, then such a linguistic practice might only be a cultural quirk. But we don’t. For men there is only Mr. (which comes from “master”), and unlike the two words for women, it can be spelled out into a full word as “mister”.

The problem with both “Mrs.” and “Miss” is that the basic meaning is defined in terms of marriage. The words mean married or not married, but there is no such distinction for men. Consider two further facts: (1) In both polite and formal address, a woman will frequently be addressed with the title, so that in a sense, it is a part of her name; (2) Because the words indicate whether or not a woman is married, they indicate a woman’s relationship to a man.

Meaning, therefore, that even to say a woman’s name, you had to indicate her relationship to a man. Should we hire this woman as a teacher? We know from her name that she has a man in her life. Or that she does not. Should we hire this man as a teacher? We don’t know or care whether he has a woman in his life. What does that have to do with anything?

Each human being should be allowed to follow their talents, and should be judged according to ability and morality, as an individual. At least in the western world we have made some progress toward this goal, and part of that progress has been to start discarding nasty, useless words like “Mrs.” and “Miss” that irrelevantly classify women according to their relationships with men.

Around 1971 the new word “Ms.” (or in some cases without the period, also derived from “mistress”) seemed to appear out of nowhere. In fact, according to Wikipedia, a newspaper in 1901 had proposed the use of the word, but it didn’t catch on. Naturally…obviously…inevitably, conservative people said, “Oh my God, what are those radical feminists up to, making up a ridiculous word? There’s nothing wrong with the old way of doing things.”

But as always, the people who wanted to limit human potential finally lost (just as they will lose the gay marriage debate), and it is now common to refer to women as Ms., which allows us to say a woman’s name with no regard to whether she is married or single. Just as we do with men, this is as it should be. A woman’s ability as a judge or architect is no more relevant to being married than it would be for a man. With our language, we have moved a step further toward recognizing individuals for their abilities. This is better for women, but it is also better for all of us, as our society grows culturally richer, fuller, and freer.

In this regard, perhaps English is ahead of other European languages, though I don’t know enough about them to really say that. I know that in Spanish we see the titles “Señor/Señora/Señorita”, just like the English Mr./Mrs./Miss. Similarly French has has “Monsieur/Madam/Mademoiselle”. There may be people who are working to change these practices in other languages.

Of course there are still some English speakers sitting sullenly in their caves, insisting that we keep using “Mrs.”, and I guess we can humor them. They will all be dead soon enough, and we can get on with the future.

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Watercress, Color Theory, and Polish Nobility

Poster called Color TheoryI’m thinking tonight about three examples in the last day, which involved quite varied activities, but all requiring a willingness to spend some time and be patient.


Like much of the country, we are having a very mild winter, with magically little snow, and with temperatures that might be shockingly cold in Florida (a sign of the End of Civilization down there), but it’s far warmer than normal. Yesterday with a friend I went walking in the countryside. With a little bundling up, a scarf, some gloves, it was a fine sunny day for a walk.

The area where we live I think is as beautiful as anywhere I’ve seen in the United States, even in the bareness of winter: the hills take on different colors from the sun, depending on the time of day; the valleys run with streams that curve back and forth, back and forth, as they flow toward the bigger water; farmhouses with their barns and buildings alternate with horses and cows grazing in stubble fields. The road we walked was narrow and at times winding, requiring that we keep a devoted attention to the idea of cars coming along.

Our route was a giant circle, down one side of the valley and back up the other. As we crossed the creek, called Cedar Run, we stopped on the bridge a while to study the plants in the water. Watercress, I was assured. A little farther on, we found an old cemetary by a tiny church. Many of the tombstones named how long the person had lived in years, months, and days. One miniature stone said the deceased had lived for six days. Beyond the graveyard we came to a village of perhaps 10 houses (or less), some of them painted in fairyland combinations, such as a house of pumpkin, cream, purple, and lavender. The walk was glorious, but it took a while, perhaps an hour and a half. Afterward, we drove back around that route to learn that it was exactly five miles.


This evening I went to the bookstore hoping to find a book that would tell me all about adding security to a website (but in an easy way, so that I could do it). In particular I wanted to know more about how to use the “.htaccess” settings to add a password to documents for downloading. I poured through the titles of the computer books they had, and surprisingly found nothing at all on security. So I pulled off possible books and looked in the indexes and still nothing. At last I took a book called something like Professional Websites and carried it to the cafe to read.

Given my level of knowledge, I probably had no business reading a book with a title like that. But I had it, I was reading it, and I got quickly swirled up in the compelling information it contained. When it talked about adding a <div> to the code, I knew just what that is, and patted myself on the back. Of course I know that. Of course.

Some of the book enthused me, making me want to do more, making me wish I could take classes in this, spend more time just working on websites. And I picked up some ideas from the book that I will probably use. At the same time, in the short hour I read, the author referred to the need to have a serious understanding of CSS code, of design principles, of dealing with clients, of color theory—holy moly, I’m still just a kid, I don’t know all that! I alternated between thinking “this is so cool!” to thinking “I’ll never know this stuff!”


For the last week I seem to have been stuck writing the same chapter of the novel with Benedict and Miramar. Maybe I’ve actually moved from one chapter to another, but it ain’t going fast, no sir. Not that it needs to, but still… One does wish to see a bit more forward motion. I can think of several reasons for going so slowly. One—I’m just a lazy schmuck, and I don’t work very hard. That’s not my favorite reason. Two—I’ve been distracted by other concerns that draw their own water from the emotional well. Three—I’m stumbling around on plot details.

I had Benedict and Miramar in the small town of Vandalia, Illinois, where they stopped for a couple of nights to see the building that was once the state capitol, where Lincoln first became a legislator, and then to hear a talk from a man who had known Lincoln. Then I put them back on the train, headed for Indianapolis, and on the train they have met a man who is pretending to be Polish nobility. He is inviting them to spend the night in Indianapolis, as he wants to make use of Benedict’s ability with card playing. So I have that, but then I started thinking, “What time will they get there? Where are they going to play cards? What happens after the game?” And so on and so on. And I got stuck looking at maps, trying to find train schedules, looking for old photographs of Indianapolis, at lists of Polish names.

So they’re still on the train, and Jaromir is telling fake stories about growing up in Poland. How do I move this ahead? Maybe my next sentence could be: “And suddenly they realized they had arrived in Indianapolis.”

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), Writing While Living

Yes, You’re Naked, But Is It Really You?

painting of a nude torsoAs I may have mentioned—did I mention this?—I’m a great advocate of lying when writing. In contrast to a good book of fictional lies, a genre that has become fairly popular in recent years is the memoir, in which someone writes about their life. The memoir is similar to an autobiography, though I believe there is a difference. Since I’m writing here about literature, I do not need real information in order to have an opinion. Or come to think of it, that’s true of all subjects.

So…the difference between an autobiography and a memoir is the purpose of the book. The purpose of an autobiography is to tell us about the life of the person who is the subject. It’s the facts that matter. In some cases the book may not be especially well written, or it might even be badly written, to tell us how a sullen, mistreated kid turned into the rapper Eminem.

A memoir also tells us about someone’s life, but that is not at all the purpose of the book. Memoirs these days are even written by people we never heard of. Instead, a memoir is meant to entertain. Some memoir writers, aware that entertainment is the real purpose, are afraid that their actual life may come off as a little dull, so they start making things up.

The most well-known example recently is James Frey, whose “memoir” turned out to be largely fictional (a pack of lies). Why didn’t he just write fiction to start with? Probably because there is a big fad for memoirs right now, and he thought he wouldn’t have to work as hard to publish it. Both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times have published lists of memoirs in which the writers pretend they are telling the truth but are not.

A memoir writer who has been very popular recently, and telling the truth to my knowledge, is David Sedaris. In a book with the vaguely provocative title Naked (not a very interesting title, really, but it does have that hint of sexuality), Sedaris never forgets that his purpose is to make the writing and the story interesting. He knows he is supposed to entertain, and he does, as with the chapter title “Dinah, The Christmas Whore”.

Because David Sedaris first became famous for a long satirical piece he read on National Public Radio, about a Christmas job in New York dressed as a department store elf, his reputation is that he is satirical and funny. And he is. On the back cover of Naked the publisher plays on this, with marketing text and quotes calling the book “hilarious” and “hilariously enteraining”.

Which is also seriously misleading. There are moments when the book is very funny, though usually in a sardonic, dark way. If the publisher had told the truth, however, that there are also moments in this book that are creepy, weird, and even sad, it would not have fit the reputation Sedaris has. Nevertheless, he is always interesting, a writer very skilled with words, images, and use of detail. Many writers have those skills, but what Sedaris has in addition that makes him different—at least in his writing—is a unique view of the world.

In part he sees the world as an outsider, which might be attributed to being young, or smart, or gay, or cynical, or artistic, take your pick. This feeling of being an outsider is sometimes expressed as cocky arrogance, as when he comments on the mall Santa: “…the obese, retired school principal who sat on his ass in the mall’s sorry-looking North Pole.” At other times, however, there is a forlorn quality to his outsider status, as though he would have liked to fit in more, and Sedaris has no hesitation at turning his satire sharply on himself. When he is trying to escape from someone while hitchhiking, he thinks of where he might get a weapon: “Make a spear, that’s it, a spear! I’d seen them in the souvenir shops, decorated with beads and feathers. The Indians made spears, didn’t they, or no, maybe I was thinking of tomahawks…”

In general the book takes a twisted, often cynical, view of life, but told with a sharp and interesting style:

  • “Every few hours the altar boys would roam the aisles with smoldering tankards of incense, and one by one the congregation, woozy from fasting, would drop like flies.”
  • “I might have arrived from a militant Muslim nation with no problem, but something about New York seemed to rub people the wrong way.”
  • “I had seen this look only twice before: once when she was caught in the path of a charging, rabid pig and then again when I had told her I wanted a peach-colored velveteen blazer with matching slacks.”

The structure of this book is a series of 17 chapters, each a kind of separate essay, taking us through Sedaris’ life from boyhood to a few years out of college. No one mentioned in the book escapes the satire, and at times it is laugh-out-loud funny, but descriptions of his family and acquaintances, like his views of the world, can have a razor edge.

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Filed under Book Talks

“While we wait for life, life passes.”

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

On a day that needs supplementation to reach tolerability, what diversions do we have in our little town? Because we are home (as most of the world knows at the moment) to the gargantuaversity of Penn State, we have quite a nice little art museum here, and I took me there this afternoon. I spent some time studying Chinese and Japanese pottery. I was surprised to see that some of the Chinese pieces from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), based on the images painted on the pots, must have been specifically intended for sale to Europeans.

Afterward, a cup of coffee and a pastry called me to Barnes and Noble, which still exists for now, and once I got there, I was in the mood to read some philosophy. I picked up a book with the fairly ostentatious title A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry and wound up reading the second chapter, about the Stoic movement in Greek and Roman times.

According to the book, one of the ideas of Stoicism (as I’m going to rephrase it) was that the totality of the universe is holy, and is a kind of living organism. Because we are part of the universe, we share in this, leading to an idea that some people will find satisfying, and some will not. When we die, we return to that universalness, and in that sense do not die. As the Greek philosopher Epictetus put it: “Yes, you will cease to be what you are but become something else of which the universe then has need.”

The Roman writer (and Emperor, if you can imagine) Marcus Aurelius said: “You came into this world as a part; you will vanish into the whole which gave you birth, or rather you will be gathered up into its generative principle by the process of change.” This idea that we are a part of the larger entity of the universe is very close to later teachings of some branches of Buddhism, or if we turn to modern physics, the idea relates to some of what quantum mechanics teaches us about the nature of reality.

Do you see an obvious problem with this idea of “we are all the universe”? If I die but still exist as part of the universe, what exactly is this “I” that’s out there? The molecules from my body? Quantum particles? Will I still remember how to play the clarinet? Actually, that’s a trick question, as I already forgot that years ago.

I find the same philosophical question to exist in considering reincarnation, and it’s a question that drives much of my intellectual inquiry and is behind my fiction writing—what is a human being? However much I may be flawed, and hoo boy! don’t get me or my ex-wives started on that one, at least I am unique. We all are. It’s amazing, but we all are. If I become part of the universe but all my memories are gone and my personality is gone, how is that still me?

To the question of what happens when we die, Christianity has a much better answer. It’s you! It’s completely you! You’ll even get to wear a nice robe and learn to play a musical instrument. In terms of living in the here and now, however, I think Stoicism is more satisfying. When we ponder the weight and darkness that inevitably accompany life, and ask why this is, Christianity generally says, “Umm, we don’t know, but God had a reason.”

Of course Stoicism also has no answer as to why children die of leukemia, or even why our car won’t start the day it’s pouring rain, but it tries to teach us to live with what happens. The gist of the approach is to live in the present. The past is gone and does not exist. The future does not exist and never will, because it is always the future. The only time that exists is this moment. Obsessing over the past or future is a road that leads to unhappiness in both directions.

As Marcus Aurelius expressed this, “…ask yourself in regard to every passing moment: what is there here that cannot be borne and cannot be endured?” There is a deep truth here. If we can lay aside dwelling in the past, or looking ahead to the future—both good and bad—then we find that almost always we can bear what we are facing at the moment. And sometimes, the present is so sweet and good that it would be a shame to miss it. You might be looking at a Chinese pot with a gorgeous blue glaze, or you might be eating a flaky apple tart.

[The title of this blog is from the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who was tutor to the Emperor Nero.]

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