Monthly Archives: May 2012

Everybody Join In On The Next Verse

Cartoon of chickens singingWhen I was a kid, I grew up on a farm, where a bunch of us kids ran loose, what people nowadays call “free range”. Running around with us were a bunch of chickens, who could go where they wanted, as long as it didn’t involve borrowing the car. Georgia was pretty lax about who could drive, though I never understood why chickens couldn’t drive if my brother was allowed behind the wheel.

Even without transportation privileges, the chickens always seemed happy. There was a social structure, with a Master of Worms, a Mother Hen, and a Counter of Chicks. They had their own feathered folkways, brought over from the old world. At night I could hear them down by the barn, the whole group singing along to old poultry songs, like “I’m Cracking Out” and “Heaven Is a Land of Grubs”.

Now that I’m surrounded by city people who think milk is made in factories, I have more appreciation of living on the farm. Two days ago, three of my friends (Lucilla, Carmen, and Betty) got engaged in a heated discourse over free-range chickens. The point of the dispute was what exactly “free-range” means.

Lucilla, a nurse, said that “free-range” applies to ability to move the joints without hindrance, and that the phrase is a reference to “free range of motion”, meaning to be flexible and move easily.

“Do chickens have joints?” Carmen asked.

“And why do chickens need to be flexible?” Betty asked. “It’s not like they’re doing yoga.”

“Although there are dog yoga classes,” Carmen said. “I was thinking of getting my husband to start with that and see if he could work up to what humans do.”

Carmen teaches geography, and she disagreed with Lucilla about what “free-range” means. Carmen said that that chickens naturally live on the range as native fauna, and if you can catch one, it’s free.

Lucilla asked what a range is, and Carmen replied, “Honey, did you go to college in Siberia? A range is like the prairie, like in that song ‘Home on the Range’.”

“I went to college in Alabama,” Lucilla said. “But I never heard that song. Anyway, nobody uses that word. If somebody asks where you live, you don’t say, ‘Oh, just outside of town, on the range. We were glad we could afford a home on the range.’”

“And those free-range chickens sure aren’t free,” Betty added. “They cost more than regular chickens. I think they must be drinking champagne.”

Betty is a real estate agent, and she had a third opinion of what “free-range” means. She said it refers to chickens who have special living arrangements, and they have free range of the place. That was why they were expensive.

Carmen sighed and rolled her eyes. “That doesn’t make sense. What kind of special arrangements would chickens have?”

“They could have a variety of possible needs,” Betty said. “Like a heated pool. So they don’t get cold.”

“Betty,” Lucilla objected, “do you know anything about chickens? Chickens don’t swim. They’re afraid of the water.”

“They’re not afraid of the water,” Better replied. “They’re afraid of getting chilled. Chickens don’t like being cold, just like I don’t. That’s why I understand chickens. Now if they had a heated pool—

“Excuse me,” I said, interrupting this inane conversation, “but I grew up on a farm, and you’re all wrong. I happen to know what ‘free-range’ means.”

“Oh,” Lucilla said. “Poultry Master is going to tell us.”

You hear that sarcasm? You hear that? I mean was there any cause for that attitude? I got offended and didn’t want to tell them, but Betty’s inducements prevailed on me. I always liked Betty better. “Well then,” I said, “free-range means the chickens sing old songs.”

Lucilla, Carmen, and Betty, without saying a word, all stared at me. After a minute, Carmen said, “They do what?”

“They sing,” I repeated. “They have old songs like—”

“Chickens sing?”

“Sure,” Lucilla said, “like cockadoodledoo.”

“No,” I replied, and I was feeling a touch testy. “I mean chicken songs.”

“And do they play little violins?” Lucilla asked, and all three women burst out laughing.

After that kind of ridicule, I decided they were just going to have to live in ignorance and I left. Violins. Who would think a chicken would play a violin? Anybody who grew up on a farm knows they have little guitars. And an occasional mandolin.

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In the Summer Green

Amish carriage in the countryThis past Sunday was a fabulously nice day, clear and sunny, warm but not too hot. Moreover, it was one of the first such perfect days this year. We are not yet jaded this season from seeing such perfect days, and it carried a golden grandeur just for being here. Sunday was a kind of day that would have been good to spend entirely out of doors. I did not take a picnic, however, to go to the lake, to go kayaking with a friend, as I should have done if God could forget my name long enough to leave me alone. Instead, I ran a cash register.

During my two 15-minute breaks at work, I wrote the poem below. I’ve been revising it for three days, and real poets will note that three days is not enough revision to be a serious poet. I agree that real poets work at it, and I don’t. I’m not a poet, nor ever claim to be one.

I don’t believe that poems must be miniature documentaries written with short lines, so that every word in them must be What Really Happened. A poem, like a short story, can be fictional. It can be, but in modern poetry, it often isn’t. The poem below, however, has a good bit of fiction in it, though it takes some real events and works with them. The pub is real. The fried chicken was real, as were the carriages. The village where the real part occurred is called Millheim, a place with a German name, about a half hour from where I live.

Winkleblink Ale

The beer was called Winkleblink Ale.
We drank in the pub where they made it,
the pub where the owner stood looking out the door,
at his two-street village
in the summer green middle of Pennsylvania.
Winkleblink drinking
and eating fried chicken,
we asked the owner how he started making beer.
“It’s my heritage,” he said,
and he didn’t say more.
He had a German name, so we thought we understood.
One main street in that village.
A truck drove by.
A loud car sped through too quickly.
Then an Amish carriage came through,
clipclopping quick horse,
a bearded man driving,
a young girl looking out the side.
I sipped my beer
and a second carriage clattered past.

Almost 300 years ago
ancestors of the people behind the horses,
came from other villages in Germany.
Now these bearded men, these cap-covered women,
these children like small adults,
ride through town in black carriages.
Their horses trot by the brew pub
where we are drinking Winkleblink Ale,
looking out the window,
watching them pass.
I stare like a tourist.
Little Amish girls
look back,
as I take another drink.

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Maybe We Are Not So Oddly Different

Man reading by candlelightLet us sit back at the end of a long day and consider a couple of scenarios. In one of them, a good looking, very cultured man sits on the couch, in a town surrounded by Pennsylvania hills, reading a story from The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. (Did you recognize that description? It’s me! Except for the adjectives.) So OK, I’m sitting on the couch reading Chaucer, and there is a description of a man whose daughter has been injured and he’s grieving. I’ve never experienced what the man in the story went through, and yet I sympathize with his feelings, and as his wife tells him that he should not wallow in grief, somehow I understand and connect with that as well.

In a second scenario, taken from the book Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (by Dai Sijie) set during the horror of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, two young men acquire a forbidden translation of a novel by Balzac. Although Balzac was writing in France more than a hundred years earlier, the two men, and a young woman who Woman reading beside a lakethey read the book to, are all captivated and moved, to the extent that the woman changes her life and leaves the village.

Chaucer could not have imagined me here, on a continent that he didn’t know existed, more than six hundred years later, able to read about him, in fact, on the internet. From Chaucer’s point of view, I live in a magical world of the future where people fly and we can take a heart from one person and give it to another. Though not quite as dramatically, Balzac might have been surprised and surely moved to know that his novels, so deep in the life of nineteenth century France, would be read by young Chinese in a poor isolated village more than a century later.

My point, though, is not whether writers of the past could imagine who might read their work. Of course they couldn’t. Who can know the future other than certain talented witches? My point is why we read people who seem so Man reading on a traindistant from us. Why do we connect with them? Human beings seem to feel an ambivalence toward people who are far from us in both time and space, feeling some connection to them (so that we feel empathy, for instance), yet also feeling disconnected. When I was teaching classes on ancient Greece and Rome, I would sometimes have students who felt that those people lived so long ago they were practically a different species. When I finally showed the students just how much those ancient people were merely us in another time (assuming I did show them that), they were surprised. Similarly, a writer can surprise us by connecting us to people who we think are Really Different From Us.

Imagine a young monk named Sifridus, 20 years old, living in a monastery in Germany in the year 1012. He gets up at 3:00 in the morning to go to chapel and pray for an hour with the other monks, and several times during the day they pray or sing hymns. During summer his job is to work in the gardens that feed the monastery, hot, sweaty work with insects. In winter he is learning how to paint the pictures that fill the margins of some manuscripts. In the monastery library, Sifridus has found a copy of Homer’s epic The Odyssey, translated into Latin, and in his small free time he reads it, fascinated to the point that he dreams about it.

Imagine a teenage boy named Gary, 16 years old and living with his parents on Amsterdam Avenue in New York City in 2012. Gary goes to private school, which he gets to on the subway, and he has to wear a uniform, which he doesn’t like. One of Gary’s favorite activities is looking at Facebook to see what people he has friended are doing, but he doesn’t comment much, as he’s afraid people might think what he says is stupid. There is—of course—a girl in school who Gary admires and writes notes to, which he then throws away. He is too shy to speak to her. One of Gary’s Woman reading with a cup of teafriends has recommended a book to Gary, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and Gary is astonished to discover this amazing tropical world of passion and parrots and wild romance.

And once more, imagine Margaret, who lives in the year 5012, in the city of Armstrong on the moon, where she works in the city administration overseeing the school system. Back in high school, Margaret used to think that someday she would take off a year, go to Earth and just travel, visit some of the exotic places she had only seen in movies or holocasts. Like most lives, however, hers did not go as she planned, and she fell in love, got married, fell out of love, got divorced, then found a job helping to run education programs for the city, which sounded interesting. Now she is 52 years old, and her main companion is her cat Shiva. One day she reads about a novel that sounds really old, but she gives it a chance, and begins reading Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and she can’t put it down.

The young monk Sifridus, in his proscribed life of religious ritual, dreams of something more than his monastery, where he thinks he will spend all his life, with its endless routine. He wants something grand, and though he would never admit to such a sin, he wants to be heroic. When he reads about the marvelous adventures of Odysseus (and with his, hmm, sexual encounters), Sifridus is enthralled.

Gary in New York, in spite of his shyness, is aflame with desire for a romantic encounter. In part this is the discovery in adolescence that the other sex is Really Interesting, it is partly the biological urge, more powerful than a freight train headed off a cliff, to have sex, and it is partly Gary himself, as he will learn that he is a romantic person who wants to feel connected to someone. Gary’s desire for romance, which he can’t even yet articulate, is incarnated in Love in the Time of Cholera.

Poor Margaret also could not tell you exactly how she feels, as she is grateful for her job, grateful for her three friends who she meets once a week, and grateful for her two children who call her regularly. She is also bored with her life. She wants more freedom, to let everything go and explore in a way she always intended but never did. As Huck Finn and Jim go down the river in this ancient novel, in a land that she imagines was barely settled at the time, the wild adventure of it fills up her soul.

Man reading sitting on the stepsWe read creative literature for a variety of reasons, but a major reason is because we want to feel that our own lives are not so isolated, that we are not so oddly different, that there are other people like us, that we can feel a connection. We want to know that our lives make at least a little bit of sense, and books can let us find other people who feel the way we do. Books also let us feel things we never experienced and would not otherwise feel.

I would, myself, like to know that I am not so oddly different. I want to feel a connection. I guess I should keep reading.

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Believing in Modern Life

Bored men at a table

Thinking about literature, maybe

Random thoughts on the working life:

[1] I was talking a few days ago with one of the other cashiers, and we agreed that working at Lowes is better than (a) being in prison, (b) being a waitress, (c) being beaten with a 2X4, (d) being hit by a bus. Actually, though, other than the waitress experience, we were only guessing.

[2] The stupid people who make up so much of the earth’s population occasionally shop at Lowes. A couple of times people have expected me to read their minds, saying mysterious things instead of giving me the information I needed to complete the sale, so that I just stood there flummoxed, not sure what to say. One man came up and immediately said, “I want to put in my phone number” (which would make sense if I knew he was paying with cash, but he didn’t bother to mention that). Another man had a tax exempt sale, which I knew how to do, but when I told him what he owed, with no taxes on it, he just stared at me like I was crazy.

[3] Without a doctor’s note, cashiers at Lowes are not allowed to sit, even when working an 8 or 10 hour shift. We have pads to stand on at the cash register, but when there are no customers, we’re supposed to stand out on the concrete floor in front of the registers. Apparently, someone sitting down in a carpeted office at company headquarters in North Carolina figured out that the company could make even more money if the people getting paid barely above minimum wage were standing on concrete, rather than sitting. It is further proof (if several thousand years have not provided enough proof), that if left alone and allowed to do so, many businesses will fuck their workers.

But all of that is just part of the trivia of our daily crawl across the earth, making our way from birth to oblivion. I want to talk of something more conducive to the human spirit. My human spirit, anyway. In writing the novel about Benedict and Miramar, which still has no name, I’m on page 295, and I believe the book will be done within 30 more pages. Whenever I’m so close to the end of writing a book, it pulls me, and I begin to work on it more diligently. I feel such a drive now to finish this book, a desire that comes, ironically (irony, you know, is like a consistent pestilent stream flowing through our lives), just as it becomes much more difficult to find time, now that I work outside the house, and with the weirdly shifting schedule that is apparently assumed to be necessary for a cashier.

For the most part I still write just in the evenings. Given how hard it is to find time, if I have only thirty minutes, I will sit down and focus and do what I can. I’m able to write like that, though it may not be my best work. On one occasion I really had no time to write that day, and it was already bedtime, but I said to myself that I would not go to bed without doing something, so I took ten minutes, wrote perhaps three or four sentences, and then went to bed feeling that I had at least made an effort. And in fact, I moved Benedict from outside a building to inside the building, so something did happen.

I’m now in a chapter in which my heroes finally reach their destination, moving toward both the east and west coasts with the use of the magical time doors. Miramar has had her huge adventure just down the road from where I sit, in the town of Altoona. Soon, tonight I hope, I will send her and her father along the railroad that lies south of here, to arrive in Philadelphia. Maybe it will happen tonight. Then again, I’m working on a blog, ain’t I? And that takes time. One way I’ve been working on the novel is to use the periods of stupefying boredom at Lowes to think about the book, and then while on break I make notes.

I’m going to end this entry with two brief excerpts from the novel (these have not been revised, so read gently). In the first, my protagonists have stopped briefly in Pittsburgh, in 1876, and they go out of the station to have a look:

With some unexpected time in the city, Benedict and Miramar decided to walk briefly out of the station to see the city for a moment. Pittsburgh was the largest city they had seen in this century. The immediate vicinity outside the station was as they expected, mad with traffic and train travelers going, coming, standing, blocking the way, and pushing past people who blocked the way.

“Except for the horses, it almost seems like our century,” Benedict said. Given this lovely break, he also took the opportunity to roll up a cigarette and have a lovely smoke.

“The buildings are taller than I thought they would be,” Miramar said. “I’ve noticed that there’s things about people in this time that are not as old-fashioned as I thought they would be.”

“Like what?” he asked, blowing out a stream of smoke.

“It seems silly, but I thought people in this time would be more like grandma. I thought they’d be more polite than in our time.”

“Well, this is a big city. People are always more rude in a city.”

That very moment, in front of them a workman carrying a heavy bag bumped heavily into another who had just set a box down. The second man whirled around and with a British accent snarled, “You shite-brained oaf. Magyar son of a bitch.”

In the second excerpt, in the town of Winnemucca, Nevada, Benedict and Miramar have spent part of the day, in 2011, visiting his old girlfriend, Ellen. Now they’ve returned to the house of Beau and Ruby Fortune, where they are spending the night.

Ruby offered Benedict a beer when he walked in the door, a beneficence that felt a hundred years overdue. “Even if you didn’t work today,” she said, “you still need a beer. Anybody still here at the end of the day needs a beer.” She looked at Miramar. “Unless they’re 15 years old,” she added.

“Did you show Miramar the excitement of Winnemucca today?” Beau asked. “At least you had a visit with Ellen. How was that?”

“It was great seeing her,” Benedict said. “I shouldn’t have been so stupid as to lose contact. And I haven’t kept up with you guys enough.”

“No, but nobody keeps up enough,” Ruby said. “It’s one of the flaws of modern life.”

“I don’t believe in modern life,” Beau said. “I bet people never did keep up enough.”


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One Day in Late Spring

A linguistic map of the word "she"Just for fun—I think it’s fun, and this is my blog—let’s take a sentence and see where all the words in the sentence come from. Here is the sample sentence: He loved her from the day he saw her.

Studying the origins of words is called etymology. A complication is that for us, words consist both of sounds (the actual spoken word) and shapes (the way we choose to write the word). So for instance the word “night” can be considered for the fact that the medieval pronunciation, which more or less pronounced every letter, turned into the more simple way we say it today. Or we might consider the shift sometimes found in spelling from “night” to “nite”. Another thing to note about etymology is that we don’t actually trace words back to their origin, because who knows when the hell that was? Tens of thousands of years ago.

Anyway, let’s take the words of our sample sentence and look at each one. They all happen to be native Anglosaxon words, not borrowed from French or Latin or what-have-you. Since this is my blog, I’ll do this any way I feel like it, which is to give you a fairly accurate, linguistially correct explanation, followed by a more poetic version.

He: This very conservative pronoun has not changed in spelling since Old English (“þær he him gesægde soðwundra fela”). The word goes back still farther, to a much older root meaning something like “this”.

  • “He” is as old as the English language itself, here from the beginning, old and new at the same time.

Loved: Let’s take off the grammatical ending for past tense, so we have the verb Love. In Middle English, the word was spelled the same (“pepil of grete love and charite”) but it would have been pronounced differently. Going farther back, to Old English, it was spelled “lufu”. Think of “v” and “f” as sort of the same (wife/wives), plus an extra vowel. If we go back further still, we find the ancient root that also gives us the word “libido” through Latin, or the word “please” as used in the English phrase “if it please you”.

  • “Love” is changeable, sometimes pleasing, sometimes mixed with sex, and generally hard to understand.

Her: In Middle English the pronouns to describe women were a little chaotic, but this word was spelled either “hire” or “here”, with the final “e” pronounced “uh”. Taking the word back as far as we can, it apparently comes from the same ancient root as “he” above.

  • “She” and “He” are part of the same whole, two aspects of the same existence.

From: This preposition existed in Old English, but was often spelled “fram” and it did not have exactly the same meaning as it does now. It could mean “from” but might also have been used to mean “concerning” or “about”. Taking the word back to a more ancient root, that root has also given us the words “far”, “further”, “former” and very many more.

  • To know where things come “From”, we must go further than we have yet gone; we must ask about former things to know about now.

The: Yes, even a simple little word like “the” has a history. It came from the Old English word “se” which could be translated into modern English as either “the” or “that”. Most strangely, the ancient root of this word (far older than the English language) is also the root of the English word “she”.

  • “She” is the origin. Everything begins with “she”, starting with the earth itself.

Day: The older spellings of this noun are kind of cool. In Middle English it was either “day” or “dai”, and in Old English it was “dæg” though pronounced as if it had a “y” on the end, not a “g”. The ancient root was also the root of the word “dawn”.

  • However the day may change, it always begins with the dawn.

Saw: This is an irregular past tense from the verb See, instead of making the past tense with a “d” (the way young children might, who at first only know regular rules: “I seed him”). Taking the verb See, we find in Middle English “sauh” and “seyen”, and in Old English “seon” and “seah”. The ancient root also gives us the modern word “sight”.

  • From ancient days we have had sight, but rarely have we been able to really see.

And I wish you a good nite until the next dæg I write. Remember that you are one of the aspects of existence, but only one.

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Sun Gold Etc.

Tomato cheese tart

Trouble maker

I started having problems with my vegetable garden in January. I mean it was OK that the ground was frozen, the land was covered with snow, and a pack of white wolves had moved in and made an encampment on my garden plot, leaving bones around the edges. I’m sure you’ll agree all that sounds normal.

No, my gardening problems started with the January issue of Gourmet magazine.

I hope you’re not thinking that in January I wanted to put on a coat and snuggy cap and gloves and go do something in the garden. I’ve firmly dedicated selected parts of my life to nearly total truth, and that would be a false image of me. In reality, January found me sitting on the couch reading Gourmet, wondering what kinds of snacks were in the kitchen. At that time of year I had no interest in leaving the apartment even to walk to the car, much less think about digging, fertilizing, planting, weeding—all that difficult, unnatural labor connected with the joys of fresh vegetables.

Looking back now, I blame the magazine. In particular, it was the fault of the glossy photo of a tomato cheese tart with fresh thyme. Maybe the glass of wine in the photo was also guilty. As you know—I mean, I only heard this—a glass of wine might be guilty on occasion. When I saw that picture of the tomato cheese tart, I began to swim the green streams of vegetable dreams, with visions of tomatoes and fresh herbs, not on the stem, but in the bowl, on my table. From the comfort of my couch with snack crumbs down in the cushions, I swore I would grow that kind of tomato.

I got on the internet, which has never let me down or misled me, and I see no reason to think it ever will, to see who was selling tomato plants. Did you know there are more than 100,000 varieties of tomato? Something like that. More than ten, anyway. I ordered the varieties Top Sirloin, Oregon Spring, Golden Nugget, Sun Gold, Stupice, Dona, Early Girl, and Brandywine. I figured that should do it. Boy oh boy, I was thinking about pasta with home-made tomato sauce, tomato sandwiches, tomato and mozzarella salads, grilled tomatoes, gazpacho.

A week later, a copy of Bon Appétit came in the mail. There on page 27 was a recipe for grilled asparagus and zucchini with balsamic reduction sauce. I sat looking at it, lusting for grilled vegetables with a piquant sauce. Trying to resist, I watched “Desperate Housewives” on TV, but during an advertisement for salad dressing my resistance broke down, I slunk to the computer, closed the curtains so the neighbors wouldn’t see what I was doing, and ordered asparagus varieties Jersey Supreme, Purple Passion, and Mary Washington Improved. While I was at it, I also ordered several kinds of squash: zucchini, yellow crookneck, patty pan, acorn, spaghetti, and butternut. Plus four kinds of lettuce. And spinach. And collards.

In the next month, as magazines arrived, with their glossy tempting recipes, I went online and ordered corn, green beans, butter beans, English peas, leeks, potatoes (nine types), sweet potatoes, artichokes, broccoli, cauliflower, lemons (which won’t even grow here), kale, beets, turnips, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, eggplant, and caviar (which I only realized afterward is not even a plant).

I forget what all. I think I had a glass of wine while I was ordering. All I could remember the next morning was something about rhubarb, and I wasn’t going to talk about it.

Chef cooking with a bottle of wine

Now that’s cooking

So now it’s early May, and I’m not sure where the wolves went, though I heard the Pennsylvania legislature is in session, so maybe they’re there. My problem, which began back in January, is that all my seeds and plants have arrived. The sideroom is filled with them, and now I have to ask myself, “What fool ordered all that stuff?” The truth—remember my dedication to nearly total truth?—is that I hate gardening. I did it once, and a bug got on me. Lord, I don’t want to talk about it. It had red eyes. I’m not going through that again.

So what do I do with all these plants and seeds? Here’s my solution. I’m looking through all those cooking magazines for soup recipes. And I hope I’ve learned my lesson, not to trust glossy magazines when there are wolves outside.

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“…the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher, dressed in a new suit.”

Painting of dejected man on curbUnless you’ve lived in a quaint intellectual isolation, you’ve heard of George Orwell, though you may not have looked him up as I’ve recently done, so you don’t know that his real name was Eric Blair. Can you picture that one day someone said, “What are you working on these days, Eric?” and he replied, “It’s a novel about totalitarian governments. I might just take this year’s date and reverse the last two numbers and call it ‘1984’. What do you think?”

As it happened, of course, the dark dystopian novel 1984 became Eric’s most successful book, so that even his pleasant pseudonym (naming himself for the River Orwell in eastern England) has acquired a dark connotation, as in the adjective Orwellian. In our time, Orwell’s somewhat ominous literary reputation is augmented by the book Animal Farm, written during World War II, four years before 1984.

Long before either of those books, however, when Eric Blair was just an Englishman who had worked as a policeman in Burma as part of the British imperial world, then grown disgusted with that system, when he was just one more guy wanting to make a living as a writer, he lived in poverty, which he later wrote about in the book Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. I was drawn to read this book because the title sounded appealing.  I figured it was a book about a writer on hard times.

If we take the book as autobiography, which it appears to be, it will raise some questions. To begin with, it is written to show that his time in Paris was followed by a period of poverty in London, but in fact, the events happened in London first, followed by Paris. A question may also be raised, when reading the accounts of extreme poverty, to know that young Eric had friends in London, and his aunt was living in Paris, and he probably did not need to live as he did.

However, if we discount the work as pure biography, does it still have value? Yes. Orwell’s intention was to write about the type of life (or lives) he described, rather than specifically about himself. Even if he experienced the down-and-out life in both cities intentionally in order to describe it, that does not negate the fact that thousands of people were living such lives in England and France (and everywhere on earth) out of necessity. Using himself as an example, Orwell describes lives that, for me at least, seem incredible for their destitution and hardship.

In the past I have described my own life as having been to the bottom, but that is not literally true. There is no bottom. As long as breath is rattling in your body, no matter how bad things are, there is a way for them to be worse. For whatever hardships I may have experienced in my life, or have now, I have never ceased to live like a prince in luxury compared to people Orwell describes, and I know he is describing a reality that is still with us. Unless you have a repellent belief in your own entitlement, some sense of perspective has to result from contemplating the human condition.

Down and Out in Paris and London provides a detailed look at how people have gone hungry living in two capital cities of the rich western world. If you are even reading this blog, you’ve probably never experienced such a life. The Paris section of the book might be seen as having two parts. In the first part, Orwell loses his source of income, teaching English occasionally, and he begins trying to survive on no money, or incredibly little. He joins up with a Russian friend, and together they live a life of degradation, faint hopes of how to get through each day, and periods of starvation, when they go for several days at a time with no food. I’ll quote here part of an incident in which they try to sneak their coats out of the place they are living (the landlord might think they were trying to leave without paying rent if he saw them taking the coats), in order to pawn them. “I went home and fetched my overcoat (that made already nine kilometres, on an empty belly) and smuggled Boris’s coat out successfully. Then a hitch occurred. The receiver at the pawnshop, a nasty, sour-faced interfering, little man—a typical French official—refused the coats on the ground that they were not wrapped up in anything.”

In the  second part of the Paris section, Orwell and his Russian friend get jobs, first in a large very fancy hotel. Orwell is employed as a dishwasher, deep in the bowels of the hotel. He is a very observant dish washer, carefully describing the work, the workers, the social hierarchy, and the hopeless hard life of doing such work. “The plongeurs [dish washers], again, have a different outlook. Theirs is a job which offers no prospects, is intensely exhausting, and at the same time has not a trace of skill or interest; the sort of job that would always be done by women if women were strong enough.”

When the action moves to London, the type of life Orwell describes is quite different, though still stark and meaningless. In London there is no fixed location, as he joins a small army of destitute men who move daily from place to place, staying in special houses that will put them up for the night. The stays are usually uncomfortable and even degrading. The reason the men keep moving is that British law at that time would not allow them to spend two nights in a row in one of these types of houses.

Orwell shows his skill and ambition as a writer in the book, as he includes stories, sometimes long stories, about characters he meets. At times such descriptions are very detailed, with stories that other characters tell, such as a man who wound up praying to a picture of a prostitute on the wall, thinking it was a picture of a saint. At times, especially in the last few pages of the book, Orwell comments more overtly on society, as he leaves the narrative to move into a more abstract third-person discussion. Then he talks about why people are living in such ways, and how these patterns fit into the society of the time. Most of the book, however, lets the readers draw their own conclusions about society, if they are so inclined.


Filed under Book Talks

Is That a Socialist Fish?

Man with fish


Last night at the Lowes store (where I am now a valuable employee), during a slow boring stretch on the cash registers while no one was coming through making purchases, I talked to a fellow cashier. I was surprised to learn that she has a full-time job, a very responsible job that requires a college degree, but her husband can’t find a job, and they have enormous monthly payments on student loans. When the work day is over she comes to run a cash register. A couple of days before, I talked with another cashier who is a teacher in the local school system. And when the work day is over, she too comes to run a cash register.

Aside from my own situation, having looked for work for two years, and now running a cash register, I began thinking about the struggle to survive among people who work, pay taxes, and are playing by the rules in this country. I think I am with normal people on the cash registers, people who are willing to work, and who do work, and it’s not enough. At the same time, because I follow political news, from a very different group of people, I hear over and over that the rich need even more tax cuts. Need them. Hell will have to freeze over and then thaw again before I will vote for tax cuts for the rich. This country is broken to even talk about such a thing.

My attitude gets reinforced from knowing who is working the cash registers. The word “liberal” would be used to describe someone who holds a number of my beliefs (or the more stupidly simple-minded word “socialist”), yet I have other beliefs that would be labeled “conservative”. As an example, I find affirmative action to be a problem, fighting racism by institutionalizing an emphasis on race. Summing up complex things, such as how we see the world, with a single word seems dumb if you think about it, yet using such terms is so common that it must have been going on for thousands of years.

It harms us that our inevitable reliance on single words for complex ideas causes us to think less, which would explain why such labels are so incredibly popular in politics. Are you a conservative? A RINO (Republican In Name Only—how’s that name for fanatical intolerance)? A liberal? A green? By using these simple-minded labels I can pretend to know what you think, so that I don’t have to consider that the world, and you, are actually more complicated.

Of course it isn’t just in the nasty, dumbed-down world of politics that we use simple, harmful, labels. I recently heard a very interesting story about a teenage girl who is a vegetarian. She is, as it happens, a very strict vegetarian, and recently she encountered a situation where she unwittingly ate a small bit of meat (or I even suspect she didn’t actually eat it, but detected it and spit it out). As a result she was upset, perhaps understandable for someone that age, but moreso, she was emotionally distraught. Days later she was still upset, and even said she had “lost my vegetarianism”. What the girl had done was take a word that should mean nothing more than not eating meat, and she had turned it into a religion in which eating meat even accidentally was a sin. This is similar to other religions with their strange dietary rules as a measure of holiness.

The incident also led to a discussion as to what the word “vegetarian” means. If I religiously avoid meat but have one piece of bacon a year, am I a vegetarian? Apparently not, according to the strictly religious definition of “vegetarian”. Of course one way to avoid all this nonsense is just to avoid the label and say “I eat what I eat, and I don’t need a name to describe that.” So maybe the only animals I eat are fish, and what is that called? I’ve heard the very unlikely name “pescatarian” used for people who only eat fish (created from the Latin word for fish). People who eat nothing from animals whatsoever (no eggs, no milk, no cheese, etc.) are called vegans. Unless they eat a little cheese once in a while. And I don’t know what that’s called. Bad vegan, maybe.

For our pleasure in this discussion, here are some dumb words used in the frantic attempt to label people based on what they eat:

lacto-ovo vegetarian—just means vegetarian, and they eat dairy (lacto) and ovo (eggs)

lacto-ovo-pesco vegetarian—plus they eat fish

fruitarian—don’t even ask about these crazy bastards

raw vegan—or these

If you happen to be a lacto-ovo-pesco vegetarian conservative who is also gay, you are welcome at my house, but just don’t talk about it. It spoils my meal.

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Filed under Language