Monthly Archives: December 2016

I Feel More Perfect Just Thinking About It

man sleeping

Hey, wake up! I made you a list.

It is a long tradition as the New Year lurches toward us with all its grinning potential, to predict what the future might bring. Self-driving cars (cool). Gene therapy (cool). Meat grown in a petri dish (umm, it’s not spam, is it?). Another album from Justin Bieber (let’s kill ourselves).

Instead of predicting, we can follow a different tradition, of compiling lists of lies to tell ourselves, of all the ways we’ll improve as soon as that magic midnight minute moves to morning, and suddenly it is a new year. NOW we can do things differently! NOW we can haul our fat ass off the couch and start exercising. NOW we can start vacuuming the house more than twice a year. We will make New Years resolutions.

Up to this point in my life, I have always begun my list with a resolution to make more resolutions, but then I don’t keep the first one, so my list is always blank. This year, however, I will be conscientious, indefatigable, and assiduous at concocting reasons to castigate myself for moral failure within one week.

So here is my list of New Years resolutions:

1) I resolve to aim at spiritual growth, to be kind, thoughtful, and tolerant of other people, and to . . . No, wait, this one is too hard. Never mind this one.

2) I resolve to no longer wish for things I don’t want just so other people can’t have them.

3) I resolve to eat only those foods that contribute to strength of body and mind, on even-numbered weekends.

4) I resolve to tolerate no vice in my life that does not fit comfortably into my momentary whims.

5) I resolve to diligently help other people discover their flaws and discuss how bad those flaws are.

I suspect you are not going to get around to making a list, so I’ve made one for you. You can wait to thank me if we go out to dinner sometime, then you can pay.

1) You resolve to stop just talking about getting a tattoo and get one (go ahead and get the one of naked people and the monkey.)

2) You resolve to change every one of your internet passwords frequently, to something really complicated, as we’re supposed to (hint: use your birthday, plus your initials).

3) You resolve to send a birthday card to your parole officer, and to call her sometimes just to chat.

4) You resolve to wear more purple underwear (I just thought you might like that).

Well. I feel better about myself already. I feel better about you, too. I’m looking forward to seeing your tattoo. Or your underwear.

Happy New Year!

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Her Eyes—How They Twinkled!

woman in a yellow dress

You want me to come where?

In the bleak midwinter of polar snow, where only elves and white bears go, Santa sat at his kitchen table, drinking hot tea with just a touch of Irish whiskey. He shivered and wrapped a blanket around himself and took another drink.

“I’be feeling better,” he said.

“You’re not going out,” his wife said. “You’re sick. Someone other than me might talk about how smart it was yesterday afternoon to have a two-hour snowball fight with the elves with your coat off. All I’m going to say is that you have a terrible cold, you need to get well, and you won’t get better flying all over the world with that cold wind in your face.”

“Bud the toys,” he said and felt tired even as he spoke, pulling the blanket tighter.

“I’ve taken care of it,” she said. “I called your cousin.”

“What?”

“Santa Clara agreed to deliver the toys, and she’s really good with reindeer. Those veterinarian classes she took are paying off. Now you get on to bed and get some rest.”

Santa Clara arrived in late afternoon, wearing a long coat with a floral pattern in red and orange. “Hey!” she said loudly, coming in the door. “That’s quite a white Christmas out there! Pretty different from Miami. When are you two coming to visit, by the way?” She hung the coat on a hook by the door and was wearing a bright yellow sleeveless dress underneath.

“Oh,” said Mrs. Claus, waving her hand in the air. “Trying to drag His Jollity away from here is a task for a moose. When he’s not working he just wants to sit on the couch and chill.”

“You can sure do that in here alright!” said Santa Clara, shivering. “I thought you’d have the heat on.”

“We keep the place kind of cool and wear sweaters,” Mrs. Claus said. “You should see the gas bill. Anyway, I had the IT elves put together an app to download tonight’s route on your phone. And I emailed you the naughty and nice list as an attachment.”

“I got it,” Santa Clara said. “Some of the things on that naughty list are, you know, not all that naughty where I live.” She stopped and smiled. “I was thinking I could at least give them a little Christmas piñata. You smack something, and you get something sweet.” She winked.

“Well, you decide that,” Mrs. Claus said. “You’re the one delivering the toys.”

Santa Clara laughed and said, “Or I could play it by ear. See if they left a mojito for mama.”

“And how about something to eat before you start packing the sleigh?” said Mrs. Claus. “I could make some grilled cheese sandwiches. The elves like those. Or I have leftover bratwurst.”

“Oh, thanks. Before I left I had some arroz con pollo and papas rellenas. I’m still stuffed like a Christmas goose, ha ha! I’m ready to get started, and I’ll be warmer if I get to moving.”

With the help of the elves, the toys were all loaded into the sleigh, and as the sun went down, with a thick blanket over her lap, Santa Clara shouted, “Rubiroso, guide my sleigh tonight!” Then down the runway the reindeer trotted, as they slowly, magically lifted off the ground.

“Now Chulo! Now Paco!” she shouted at the reindeer. “Now Cabrón and Cariño! On Pollito, on Primo and Jefe!”

Mrs. Claus watched as they rose higher in the air, and she heard the voice of Santa Clara coming back through the cold air. “Merry Christmas to all, and Feliz Navidad a todos!”

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Maybe I Should Try Harder?

drawing of the devil pointing

OK, how much do you want?

For the last four months or so I haven’t written any poetry, or wanted to. But recently I’ve been listening to songs by the musical group The Devil Makes Three. When I listen to the lyrics, they just lift me out of my chair. I can’t say what it is about those lyrics that sparks my imagination so much, but it do. Their music makes me want to get a bottle of whiskey, drive fast down a dirt road at night, and write poetry. So when I got to where I was going, with the engine still running, I sat in the road with the bottle beside on the dirt, and by the light of the car headlights I wrote a couple of poems. Here is one of them.
 

I’m a Little Disappointed

I found one of your letters.
You implied you might could love me,
if I would just be patient
and wait till Christ comes back.
I’m jealous of my former self,
who thought he had a chance,
till he went off
and I showed up,
knowing what I know.
Now I’m drinking gasoline,
and I’m looking for a match.
If Satan comes up to me
trading sulfur for my soul,
I’ll say, “Hey, man, put it in my hand,
then get away from me!”

I read a book on world peace.
They made it sound so good,
like something we should do,
and all we’d need is everyone
would be completely different.
I thought that I should try it.
How hard could world peace be?
I’d quell my fears and inner beast
with honey, milk, and brandy.
Then someone played his music loud
while I was trying to sleep.
Now I’m drinking gasoline,
and I’m looking for a match.
If Satan comes up to me
trading sulfur for my soul,
I’ll say, “Hey, man, put it in my hand.
Don’t try that grin with me.”

I went to see the Buddha,
I thought that he would know.
I thought that he could tell me
how I should be a good boy,
the twelve steps to enlightenment
and all that tranquil stuff.
So I walked up to him smiling,
held out my hopeful hand,
but he just sighed and shook his head
and asked me for spare change.
Now I’m drinking gasoline,
and I’m looking for a match.
If Satan says he’ll give me
phosphorus for my soul,
he’d better hand it over,
then run while he’s still whole.

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Period (.)

full-stop-cafe

We can hang out here a while

In the blink of a week, we are dashing across the vast expanses of literary space (using our warped view drive), to go from last week considering one of the longest novels ever written, to this week looking at the smallest element of punctuation in English. If another language has a smaller punctuation mark than a period, no one knows, because you can’t see it.

Whence cometh this little dot of ink, and why? What we call the period in America (or a full stop in some other English-speaking countries) is the smallest conceivable punctuation mark, but that little fellow carries a lot of weight. Every written language eventually has had to develop at least some forms of punctuation, and the use of a dot to end a sentence can be traced far, far back to an early Greek system in the bygone B.C. days.

Because writing is one of the oldest human inventions, it has evolved and changed drastically over the centuries. I’m not interested in trying to discuss the history of punctuation in the two thousand years since a dot was first used, but I will say that without any punctuation, it’s much, much harder to read a text, as well as more difficult to even express ideas. Sometimes in the Middle Ages the writing even avoided blank space (also a kind of punctuation): anangelcametohimonthehill. Not too many people were reading in those days.

In terms of function, no punctuation mark is more important than a period, as it indicates a complete sentence. It’s a bit strange that in most European languages, a function as important as the end of a sentence is marked with such an insignificant dot of ink. The very importance of the period, however, may be the reason we can barely see it. Every text is filled with periods, and if it were larger and more evident, for instance, if it looked like this ◄ it might take over the page◄ Nobody would like that◄ And think of how much more space that would take up◄

During this period of reflecting on full stops, I want to focus the dot on a philosophical point. Let’s note that a sentence is the most basic unit of thought, and the simplest definition of a sentence is that it must have a subject (normally a noun) and a verb. A sentence is therefore a reflection of our most fundamental perception of the world, probably even from a few months old. We soon learn to distinguish that the world consists of separate objects; there are things out there. God knows what all those things are, but one of them is Mama. Secondly, we notice that those things move.

Things move (noun verb)—this is a basic sentence. The concept of a sentence is so important to language, that when you add an object, linguists even classify all languages as to what order these three elements occur. English is an SVO language, subject-verb-object: David drinks beer. (Or wine.)

I was looking at a website discussing punctuation that said the period is “the easiest punctuation mark to master”, which may be so, but when I was teaching first-year college writing classes, I had very many students who did not clearly know when to use a period. We even had special words for not knowing. Joining two sentences with a comma, instead of using a period for each one was called a “comma splice” and using a period before a sentence was completed was called a “sentence fragment”.

By the way, what I just did above, putting the period (and comma) outside the quotation marks is British style, which I use because it makes more sense, and if you don’t like it, maybe you should be an English major. At some future point perhaps I’ll discuss commas, but you know the comma is such a lazy thing, always stopping to take a rest. I’m a busy guy. I may not have time for commas.

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War and War and Then Some Peace

man with head in a vice reading

Keep reading

I’m sure you’ve heard of the book War and Peace, by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, and maybe you’ve read it, though if you’re a normal person, reading it probably never even occurred to you. People say the book is a great novel. I’ve just finished reading it this week, and I don’t agree. I do not think War and Peace is a great novel.

To be fair—as fair as I plan to be, anyway—I didn’t read the book at one go. My version is 1,200 pages, so I read 100 or 200 pages at a time, with other books in between, and I spent about a year on it. That long process may have affected my perception of the book, such as my belief that it’s far, far too long, no matter what else you say about it.

The story is a great, vast epic over twenty years, with some of the Napoleonic wars, including the invasion of Russia and occupation of Moscow by the French. There are plenty of detailed battle scenes, of course, and many of the soldiers going into battle seem exhilarated and happy. Back when I thought I might drafted and sent to Vietnam, I used to think that if someone were firing bullets at me, I’d be lying terrified on the ground. Leo Tolstoy, by contrast, did go into battles in the Caucasus region, so I guess he knew better than me. But exhilarated and happy? Did they really run forward thrilled to be there until their brains were blown out?

In general the style of writing is strong, at times simply brilliant, but the story has little focus much of the time, moving from person to person, including entire chapters from the point of view of characters who are ultimately fairly minor. In the end, several characters are followed all the way to the conclusion, so they seem like major characters by exhaustive virtue of having survived the full 1,200 pages.

I have to admit that I didn’t really like most of the characters very much, except perhaps Sonya, who is completely downtrodden and mistreated, and sometimes Pierre was OK. Many of the characters, however, seemed so negative in their portrayals, such as Nicolai at the end turning into a sullen, reactionary country landowner, that I began to wonder whether Tolstoy himself actually liked any of these people.

There were also times when it seemed to me that the author was either bored or lazy, particularly in describing female characters. One woman had “shining eyes” (лучистые глаза) so often that I thought “Leo, did you not notice you were doing this?” I also found his treatment of the female characters to be cliched and sometimes offensive. I know he lived in a very different time from us, I understand that, but Tolstoy is also famous for his ability to realistically portray his characters. With the women, I felt he was often working with stereotyped images that he carried in his head, rather than describing real women.

The most dramatic example of his condescension for me was a description of Natasha at the end of the book, now married and a mother, as being quintessentially a плодовитая самка (“prolific female” or “fertile female [animal]”). Tolstoy literally says at that point in the book that Natasha’s former sparkling personality is gone, but she is a good breeder. You can translate that how you like. A quick Google search showed me that I was not alone in stopping, astonished, when I read that phrase.

As a work of literature, War and Peace can be discussed and criticized, or praised, on many points, but I think as a work of fiction its greatest fault is that Tolstoy was exceedingly self indulgent, deciding that any damn thing that came into his head belonged in his book. OK, it was the nineteenth century, and they did that then. So did Victor Hugo in Les Misérables. But War and Peace has long—long—stretches where the story stops altogether and the author goes into philosophical discussions of history, including various theories as to how history can be written. I’m not kidding.

This flaw particularly mars the end, where it appears the author completely loses interest in his characters. The last thirty pages of the book are a very dense historical discussion that turns into philosophizing about free will. Of course when you read the book for the first time (this was my second time, so I knew what to expect) you keep thinking the discussion will stop and you’ll get back to the characters and the story. Surprise.

I do have admiration for this book, and there were times when I got a great deal of pleasure while reading it, but for me it has too many flaws, some of them too egregious, to regard it as a great novel. But then, what is a great novel anyway?

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