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No Such Thing As Too Dumm

A good argument can be made that the invention of writing has allowed human beings not only to accumulate more knowledge (when the oldest person in the village dies, we don’t lose everything they knew), but writing has also allowed us to think more logical and complicated thoughts.

Most of the reason for that expansion in our mental capacity is probably the fact that unlike speech, writing does not disappear the moment you encounter it. If you don’t understand it, you can look at it again, as many times as necessary. You can also concentrate on just one part of the writing until you understand it, and then move on, taking as long as you need. In addition, writing allows us to slowly and carefully organize and add to our thoughts, until we can say more complex things that would not be possible when simply speaking.

This week I had an experience—not a particularly rare one—that made me consider an opposing concept. I was looking online for a baseball cap, going through page after page of images. Many of the caps had writing on them, and much of it was so stupid it began to seem like evidence that not only writing, but even speech itself, was a bad idea.

Does writing make it possible for us to be even more stupid that normal?

For instance, consider a baseball cap that says “I Only Do Butt Stuff at the Gym”. I can pause, if you want, and give you a few minutes to come up with something dumber, or you can read on for more. A relevant point here is not just the inherent dumbness, as if stupidity were some sort of quantum force moving through space (which it is).

What makes this worse is the context. A baseball cap is not a sign on a wall, or a bumper sticker. The cap displays a phrase on top of the head that will be seen by every person the wearer talks to. So maybe “In dog years I’m dead” is faintly clever, sort of, after a beer or two, but when that phrase is on top of your head, your first greeting to everyone you meet, maybe you need more dog years.

For straight-up stupidity, how about “Barbells for Boobies.” What in God’s name does that even mean? Or—and let me emphasize that I’m NOT making these up, they’re all real—“Cowboy’s butts drive me nuts”, “Wine ‘em, dine ‘em, sixty-nine ‘em”, “If it has tits or tires, you’re gonna have problems”.

Well, boys and girls, I guess you’re thinking we’ve hit bottom, but we’re talking about human behavior here. There is no bottom. So here are a few more baseball cap phrases, which you can go and buy right now, that overtly say “Look at my baseball cap. I’m a moron.” And again, I swear to God, I did not make these up. Picture someone wearing these on their head:

  • I’m either having a midlife crisis or I need a laxative
  • Drunk slut
  • World’s largest source of natural gas
  • Asshole

If not for these baseball caps, you would have to actually talk to the people wearing them to know that they’re idiots. If they were to merely walk by, you might not even know. But now, thanks to the wondrous invention of writing, you can see them coming across the room and think, “Oh my God, where’s the door?”


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Comma Up to My Place

peanuts cartoon on commasIf you happen to be the kind of person, hopeless, that is, desperately deranged, who would go looking for the history of a punctuation mark, you can find that on Wikipedia. But rest your fingers, rest your heart. You don’t need to waste time thinking about actual facts when I can give you the secret history of the comma. What makes this secret is that I never wrote it down before. Or thought of it. That’s how secret it is.

As everyone knows, most commas these days come from South Korea, and with modern Korean production processes, commas have become very cheap. I buy large boxes of commas at Target, and the kind I buy come with free semicolons. As a writer, I have a use for semicolons, but if you happen to run across them, you can just throw semicolons in the trash. You don’t need those. If you need a few commas in a hurry, I’ve also seen them in packages of a dozen, for sale in service stations, usually near the beef jerky.

The comma was invented by a medieval monk in Portugal, who was copying manuscripts that he found dull (legend says they were love poems from one of the first popes), and the monk grew sleepy as he was writing. He continued to work in a drowsy state, but when he tried to make periods, his pen slipped a bit on the page. At first the other monks thought these marks were strangely written periods. They liked the way they looked, however, so that every time they came to one, they would pause to look at it. This is how the comma came to represent a pause in the sentence.

Commas became especially popular in Europe in the court of the French king Louis XIV, where commas were worn on the clothing of the courtiers, often decorated with jewels, so that a combination of a comma with an added pearl inadvertently invented the semicolon. The comma was so popular at this time that many illiterate people wanted to learn how to write, just to have words they could put on either side of the beloved comma.

One of the interesting offshoots of the comma in the 19th century was that it gave rise to a visual metaphor that meant “Shut up. Just shut up right now.” That message was conveyed by holding one finger out in front, then curving it downwards as if drawing a comma. The symbolic intent was “I’m inserting a pause here, and I’ll tell you when to continue, which will be never.” A number of duels were fought over that downward-curving finger, and quite a few writers lost their lives this way, as they were quick to insert an air comma, but less quick with pistols afterward.

In more recent history, back in 1986 a cargo ship full of commas sank in the Indian Ocean, and for the next year sentences all over the world were faster to read, though at the same time many of them were less clear for lack of punctuation. Toward the end of the 20th century, commas began to lose their popularity in the west just as they were gaining in popularity in Asia, particularly in Japan and Thailand. In some Buddhist sects, the curve of the comma came to be seen as implying part of a circle, so that every comma was thought to remind us that at any given moment, we are only part of the way through the circle of life.

And of course we all know about the recent upsurge in the popularity of commas because of pop bands who have named themselves after the comma: Commas and Whiskey, Red Comma Revolution, The Night Commas, and others.

And while I’m thinking of it,

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Poetry Month Stops to Look at Rain on a Window and Realizes the Month Is Over

rain on a windowNational Poetry Month will be over in a few days. How much did you write? Did you write a poem about the person who you love with a passion oh so true, but they just don’t love you? Or maybe you wrote some small lyrical piece about three birds on a wire at sunset. Poetry can just be about anything, can’t it? About Napoleon’s exile, or your daughter learning the flute, or the faithfulness of an old dog on an autumn afternoon.

I wrote a poem about the end of time.

Here at the End of Time

Here at the end of time,
there have been some changes.
The days that are left have swelled up, for instance,
like balloons.
Now each one lasts a week,
and it takes seven hours to eat breakfast.
This means drinking a lot more coffee.

Here at the end of time,
gravity has also become irregular,
and things keep floating away.
My hairbrush is gone,
so I look like I just woke up,
and the sky is full of lawn furniture.

Here at the end of time,
strangely enough,
there’s more time to think about things,
as most things don’t need doing.
There’s not much point in canning the summer tomatoes.
No need to study for the history test.
Now we can sit here and dwell on our past iniquities,
or think about the fact that we had better hurry up and commit new sins,
if we still have a few in mind.

Here at the end of time,
several days ago
every religion came true,
and then they ended.
So all that fighting was for nothing.
Now there’s no religion,
but we don’t have time to worry about whether that’s going to make a difference.

Here at the end of time,
I’m surprised it even came.
I always read that time went on forever.
So much for that idea.
Maybe I was reading the wrong books.
It wouldn’t be the first time.

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Write Into Other Worlds

wall mural of woman in colorNow that it’s April, I’ll say I’m
looking for silver bells to chime
to celebrate these thirty days
and all the splendid, curving ways
we take our words and make them rhyme.

As well as the stuff that doesn’t rhyme. April is National Poetry Month, though I wonder who decided. Who makes something a “national month”? Surely not Congress. I cannot imagine that wretched pit of semiliterates commemorating poetry. But here it is anyway. I want to commemorate poetry myself by noting that in addition to the pleasure and meaning poetry can bring to our individual lives, it also makes human beings more civilized.

After some thought, I decided that the evocation of civilization even includes the old epic poetry. I’m most familiar with the Greek epics Iliad and Odyssey, and at first I did not think of them as promoting civilization, considering how violent they are. Honestly, it’s weird and disturbing how brutally savage those poems are, and yet, they helped to create a sense among the ancient Greeks of having a common culture, of being part of the Greek world. When you think about the idea of being a member of a large group as opposed to only belonging to small hostile tribes, that way of thinking is definitely a step toward civilization.

Poetry also works with language, which is quintessentially human, perhaps the single most human quality we possess. Language is accessible to everyone, and the very material of poetry is this essential human skill combined with human experience. Poetry thus arises, in a sense, out of everyone. Because poetry can also be very short, it feels more available to people who might not try something that requires more investment of time and effort. For these reasons, poetry is probably the one art form that the majority of humans have tried. Most people do not compose music, or paint paintings, or write novels, but most people have probably written (or started to write) at least one poem in their life, even if only one.

Another way poetry makes us civilized is that by its very nature it takes our human skill of language and shapes it in ways that require thought, knowledge, and feeling. These are qualities of the mind, ways of thinking that involve contemplation and examination. The more that human beings learn to exercise these qualities–to consider things carefully, to think about things–the closer we come to being civilized.

I would also argue that poetry makes us more civilized by giving us a very accessible form of expression that feels more intense and rich than normal speech. It is our nature that we need to express our thoughts and feelings, and if we don’t, we become ill and broken. As to why we need to do this, I have no idea, but clearly we need to express ourselves, to “get things out” and poetry is right there available. It does not have to be good poetry in some artistic sense to have a civilizing effect. What matters is that the anguished teenager can write it and find emotional relief.

Poetry furthermore allows us, when we read it, to go inside other people’s experiences, including some that are radically different from what we know. With poetry we can go into the mind of other people in other places with other cultural values, and when we feel the emotion in the poetry, then we can begin to understand our common humanity with another person. If we connect with people from other cultures and places, that is also a step on the road to civilization.

I’ll end with three lines from the beginning of a poem by a poet who was writing early in the 20th century, but who still feels on the edge of experimentation, e. e. cummings (which is how he spelled his name):

my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through have of give
singing each morning out of night

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The Wild Fruits of Summer

basket of tomatoesThis weekend is my birthday weekend, and in anticipation of the joyous acclamations that will probably ring out for hours, I am temporarily laying down the arduous task of making sense on this blog (a lofty goal I seldom attain anyway).

Instead of trying to say something sensible and literary, I can relax and be my real self. That opens up a full Pandora’s storage shed (way too much to fit into a box) of potential nonsense that I can use to litter the internet. I feel a little bad about the littering, knowing how rigorous the internet normally is for maintaining rational, logical information. But here I am anyway.

Given that birthdays allude to the passage of time, I’ll float back in time and tell a true story from when I was around thirteen, though I don’t remember exactly how old I was. There’s probably not a lot that I remember exactly. At that time we lived in a house next to my grandparents, more or less on their farm not far outside the town of Gainesville, Georgia, in a house my grandfather built for us in what had been a field of peas. Our first year in that house, in fact, in the front, facing the road that was still tar and gravel at that time, we had to wait for the peas to be harvested before we could create a real lawn.

Next door, in my grandparents’ yard, they had two pecan trees which had been there quite a while. Pecan trees grow to be surprisingly large (surprising to me, anyway), and under one of those trees, on one side of the yard, was a picnic table. I’m also remembering that at some point there was a pile of sand under the tree, and we played in the sand.

The pecan tree was not far from the road that ran past our houses, and near the tree was a small parking lot, as my grandfather also ran a little country store next to his house. As kids we’d go to the store to beg for enormous candy bars, and my grandfather, not being a dentist, would sometimes give them to us. The store had a concrete tank outside with minnows that people would buy to use for fishing, so of course we’d sometimes lean into the tank and play with the little fish. Inside the store was a small gas stove, surrounded by a half circle of chairs with woven cane bottoms, where we’d sit in the winter to wait for the school bus.

My story, however, takes place in the summer, when large wooden baskets would be sitting in the yard full of vegetables, including tomatoes so full of juice that each one was like a handful of summer by itself. One day my brother, the wild one just under me in age, climbed up in the enormous pecan tree, having somehow gotten up there with several tomatoes. Maybe he was with friends. Maybe he was with me. As I said, many things I don’t remember now.

Unlike winter tomatoes, available now in the supermarket all year long, which will bounce off whatever they’re thrown at, the summer tomatoes on my grandparents’ farm would burst like a bomb of tomato juice when encouraged to do so. So up the tree my brother went, and even though it was summer, and the tree was full of leaves, and the view was no doubt impeded, he could see enough to know when a car was coming down the road past our houses.

Perhaps he threw at one or two and missed. I’m sure it would take both planning and luck to have a tomato appear just in front of the windshield as a car was passing by, but my brother managed it. Now I’m thinking I must have been in the tree as well, or maybe I’ve just imagined the sight of that same car after it turned around down the road and came back to the parking lot of my grandfather’s store, the sight of a very angry man getting out, and just before that, the sight of my brother leaping down from the tree and running like a deer toward the woods down the hill behind the houses.

I can understand now why that man was angry. I’m sure I would be, too. At the time, though, he just seemed like one of those adults whose purpose was to make life harder for children. “These kids got to wash my car!” he yelled. I suppose someone got some water from the spicket that stuck up in the yard, next to the sand pile, and rinsed off his windshield.

And maybe he saw my brother running away, which made it easier for us to explain that the actual criminal had left. Some guy we barely even knew.

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Let’s Make a Thousand Years of Art

young girl sitting on a bedI’m pausing the writing blog this week to ponder a question that does involve writing, but not writing alone. Last weekend I visited several art galleries, to ask when they are having openings, as I wanted to go and meet some of the artists. In one of the galleries, I got into a discussion with the woman working there about art and civilization. I’m not sure exactly how that conversation got started, but that’s how I am. I’ll talk about stuff like that.

In the conversation, I told her an idea I’ve mentioned before on this blog, that I think human beings could become civilized some day, and if we do, it will be because of art. Whether art could be the path that leads us there, for her, was a moot point, as she declared a belief that we are not capable of being civilized.

Her view was something along the lines of “People are too inherently bad” to ever really be civilized. I can’t disagree about human capacity for badness. The physical nature of our existence, with all its discomfort, pain, and distress (and that’s if you have a good life), combined with our spirits that rebel against those things, can lead us—very easily—into abusing one another as well as ourselves. It is as though, just because we are born, we thrash about angrily: “What the fuck is this? I don’t want to be sick! I don’t want to be lonely! I don’t want to grow old!”

That basic dilemma cannot be changed. Does it mean, then, as my art gallery interlocutor said, that human beings will not ever attain civilization?

I replied that in the long run, I think we can. I don’t say definitely will, but can. And when I say “long run” I mean something like a thousand years from now. That sounds impossibly distant to us, but after all, such a time will come. I do believe that art will be the path, by which I mean real art, not propaganda produced by government or corporations, but creations from the heart.

Some forms of art we’ve known for centuries, even thousands of years: epic poetry, songs, dances, theater, sculpture. Based on some of these early forms of art, other forms have been invented in recent centuries: novels, opera, symphonic music, graphic novels, movies. There certainly are artforms yet to come. And of course there are things like architecture, gardening, interior design, clothing, that can be art as well. A joy of creation can be expressed in many ways.

If we can become civilized (which we so obviously are not at the moment), what would that be? I can’t see a thousand years ahead, so I don’t know all that might be done. This is a good spot to use a quote I wrote down a couple of nights ago, lying now on my desk, from a song by Ryan Adams: “You can’t see tomorrow with yesterday’s eyes.”

I have yesterday’s eyes, but one thing I know absolutely, that the most basic aspect of civilization will be that every human being is valued for who they are born to be, that every human is allowed to express their nature and feel joy in their own existence. So much of the stupidity that litters our own society at the moment, in our bigoted attitudes toward what we call “race”, toward ethnicity, toward gender, toward sexuality—a civilized people will have to look at us with pity for the darkness we live in. As long as we live in that darkness, we don’t care that some people are poor, that some people are hungry, that some have no health care, that some are afraid others will harm them.

I have hope, however. I will say it in an art gallery. I will say it on a blog. Because of art we will get there. If you have an urge to create, then do it, and don’t wait. Paint a picture. Plant a garden. Decorate your living room the way you really want it to look. And encourage your children.


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Is Irish Alive?

A people’s language is a huge part of their identity. This fact is so well known that dominant powers across the world have tried to force smaller groups to give up their language. When the English ruled Ireland, where I am now as I write, they tried to destroy the Irish language.

In spite of English attempts, the Irish language is everywhere here on official signs. This is especially interesting to see the Irish names of cities (such as Luimnigh for Limerick or Gaillimh for Galway).

When you start to notice, however, you see signs for things drivers need to know right now, only in English, such as “All through traffic turn here” and you realize the Irish is just symbolic.

There are people who do speak Irish at home, however. The western part of the island has the most Irish speakers  (40,000 to 50,000).

The parts of Ireland where the Irish language is mostly spoken are called the Gaeltacht, which is broken up into multiple small areas, and includes the city of Galway. As a bad sign for Irish, the Gaeltacht is shrinking.

I wondered if I would hear people speaking Irish. I’m using AirBnB while in Ireland, and I asked the woman I was staying with in Limerick if she speaks Irish. She surprised me and said yes she does. She did not grow up speaking the language, and in order to really use it now, she has to seek out conversation groups. Nevertheless, she sent her daughter to schools where she studied only in Irish. As a positive sign of interest, the demand for places in the school exceeds availability.

Here in Galway, over on the west coast, I asked my waitress at dinner if she speaks Irish. She said it’s her native language, that she grew up speaking it, and in her village, it’s what people speak. She added, however, that she was the only person in the bar who was fluent in Irish.

In most of the country, most people do not speak it, and I’ve been told that it’s badly taught in schools. If the Irish want to save their language, and I hope they will, the country has to try a lot harder than it is trying.

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