What Goodness Knows: Ed Simon’s “Furnace of this World; or, 36 Observations About Goodness”

When Mark Twain’s Huck decides to help Jim, an illegal immigrant of his time, a runaway slave, Huck believes he’ll go to hell for his goodness. Huck knows that by helping Jim escape he’ll be breaking the law. He’ll bring the wrath of local public opinion so forcefully down upon his head, this time it’ll probably fall off. He feels good, though, having sat down and thought it out and making his decision to help Jim with deliberation and good reason. Huck does not argue that he should not go to hell for helping Jim.

Central to Ed Simon’s 100 page immersion in goodness is a discussion of Judas, who betrayed Jesus. It’s a little forced, but the idea is that without the betrayal, Jesus can’t save the world. One would think the Grand Master of Plots would come up with a work-around if Judas doesn’t cooperate, but we get the idea. Out of this betrayal, for which Judas knows he’ll go to hell, where his 30 pieces of silver won’t buy him much of anything, comes the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. So why has Judas, over time, been treated as such a heel?

For Simon, goodness is no easy matter. When Jesus said, “Come, follow me,” you knew you were not going to a party. Is goodness even possible for an embodied, fallen soul? Where along the spectrum from doing good to doing nothing to breaking bad does empathy require altruistic behavior? In other words, what good is it if you don’t have some skin in the game? Simon clarifies the question in his introduction:

“Looming over my concerns is clearly the current political climate in both Europe and the United States, particularly the increasing economic disparity, the emboldening of extremism and zealotry, and especially the casual cruelty. The desire to reflect on what goodness might mean and how to be an embodied individual implicated in systems of oppression who nonetheless wishes to stand against those systems is hopefully underscored through the entire book” (8).

from Intro. to “Furnace of This World; Or, 36 Observations About Goodness,” by Ed Simon, Zero Books, 2019.

Why does it sometimes seem easier to follow evil than good? Easier to describe and to write. Good comedy is much harder to write, and more rare, than good tragedy. And why does comedy so often rely on someone else’s pain? Any discussion of good and evil falls quickly into the Western dichotomy zone, where so much bad would not have befallen you had you simply been more good. It’s not as easy as choosing right over wrong when any choice implicates others and sets forth what might quickly become a random course of events over which you just as quickly lose control. You make a good shot, but unfortunately you end up sinking the 8 ball and give away the match. Simon is aware of that, and handles it carefully:

“I neither know what is right or wrong, nor how to prove which one a given action is, but I do know fear, anxiety, pain, relief, peace, love, and the visceral, physical, psychological experience of those states, and that must be the basis for any ethic of goodness to our fellow humans” (14).

Goodness begins, for Simon, with compassion. But can the good one does redeem one who does not? Is there a quorum of good necessary to save those not in attendance? Why does the Black Christ keep getting whitewashed over? Simon does not go it alone in navigating his theme. What good would a totalitarian good be? What does it mean to sin for good? As Dylan sang, “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” A little kindness for those who fail might be a good place to begin a path toward goodness.

While his Judas discussion might seem a bit forced, so too do some of Simon’s examples of evil seem extreme. They are the tabloid stories that have gone historically viral. But they are carefully placed to support the claim that evil is not a mistake. Depravity does not necessarily follow from deprivation, contrary to social studies myth:

“My Daddy beats my Mommy
My Mommy clobbers me
My Grandpa is a Commie
My Grandma pushes tea
My sister wears a mustache
My brother wears a dress
Goodness Gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!

from “Gee, Officer Krupke,” lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, “West Side Story,” 1957.

In fact, goodness might come from poverty, the road of excess not leading to Blake’s “palace of wisdom,” but to a white house of exploitation and gluttony, avarice and vainglory. The swamp might be a necessary mess.

“I apologize for the macabre nature of my observations,” Simon begins observation XXIV, “but any discussion of good implies a consideration of evil” (60). Apology accepted as we read on, for by the end of his observations, I was gobsmacked by this book. It is perfectly paced and accessible to the common reader. It’s full of researched materials from antiquity to modern times, but it’s scholarly without being pedantic or smugly academic. It does not pander to a peer group. Yet it could be used as a guide toward further reading, study, caring. It contains both the sacred and the profane. It does not preach nor profess nor confess nor hide.

Is happiness necessary to goodness? Studies over the last two decades have shown Americans are not a happy bunch. Could it be that’s because we are not sufficiently good to be really happy? Simon anticipates rebuttal. Each observation carries forward naturally and thematically. He’s not without contradictions. We learn of Margery Kempe and her autobiography. We meet, if we’ve not already, the poet Jack Gilbert. Kempe says, “Wheresoever God is, heaven is; and God is in your soul, and many an angel is round about your soul to guard it both night and day” (80). But if God is in your soul, why does it need protecting, protection from what? Protection from the world He created for you? Is that how religion came to be such a protection racket? Meanwhile, we’ve Jack Gilbert telling us “we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants” (78). Then why didn’t God make life more enjoyable, the cynic responds. But Simon stops the merry-go-round: “We laugh and enjoy and smile not in spite of the suffering implicit in all life, we laugh and enjoy and smile because of that suffering. We laugh and enjoy and smile not because we are inhuman, we laugh and enjoy and smile because we are human” (78).

Simon’s human examples of goodness are not so tabloid as his examples of evil. From Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Flannery O’Connor, from Augustine through Judas to Margaret Edson’s W;t, to Kempe and Nietzsche and on to Fr Mychal, 911’s “Victim 0001,” whose last act of love signalled that God does not hate us, we learn, if nothing else, why we are given goodness.

Simon has written a good book. We learn about the things that make poetry: kindness, fellowship, pencils. “Such is the kernel of resistance, the ethic of kindness and delight, to ‘accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world,'” Simon says, the “ruthless furnace” bit coming from Jack Gilbert (79). Simon’s last observation, number XXXVI, is a brilliant, modern version of the Lord’s Prayer, a way to think about goodness.

The House in Summer (for ZZ & Chloe)

The house is not a mystery
that’s made from trees and history
from every old nook and cranny
you hear the voice of a nanny.

Papa pops up to make early
the coffee and lets out Zoe
the cat points like a unicorn
the approach of a vacuum horn.

The grand girls all day play
pretend puzzles of their world
while the board games nap
gathering light into a lens.

At night the windows fly
boat sails lift the sky
climb the moon high
and breath falls to a sigh.

Elephant Garlic Honey and “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle”

We’ve been growing more herbs these last few years. The Salsa Garden is lost, as well as most of the activities that used to surround it. Yesterday, walking with a beer through the brick bordered herb garden (used bricks salvaged from lost projects, saved from taken down chimneys – we’ve one clinker brick), I noticed three honey bees working the flowers of two elephant garlic plants. The flowers are round, purple and white balls of blossoms, about the size of a swollen baseball, blossoming one each at the top of five foot stalks.

It’s difficult of course to identify the plant a honey comes from, and these bees are foraging freely in urban wild yards up and down the block. And the elephant garlic is on its own, hardly a crop. I don’t know where the bees call home. The rampant peppermint growing up along the south facing wall will bloom soon, and will bring more bees, and butterflies, and hummingbirds. If our yard were a poem, it would be free verse.

I pulled out a prize find foraging in the neighborhood book box down on the corner this week: “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle…And Other Modern Verse.” This is the 1966 edition that was welcomed in schools for a few years. It’s a textbook, but unlike most intro tos we see nowadays. There’s little discussion, and just one or a few questions for each poem gathered in a rear appendix. The title comes from one of the poems, written by John Tobias: “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity.” The book includes black and white photos scattered throughout. All of the poems are cast in italics, but not their titles.

This copy is a discard from “School District No. 1: Cleveland High School.” The “issued to” slip pasted on the inside front cover shows 10/15/71 as the first date, issued to a Donald Scott. There is a name ahead of Scott’s, Gene Brown, but no date. There are other dates and student names: Shirley Moe (undated); Felicia Tracy (undated); 4/6/76 Marie Dee. There are eleven names, one crossed out with blue ink such that it’s unreadable. The last date reads 5-15-2000. And seemingly out of place, “Iris Little 6th per” appears at the top of the slip, no date. There is a note “To the student:” which mentions how the book comes into the student’s hands, and includes a schedule of “charges” should the book be found damaged in some way upon return, including: “4. Defacing by pencil…1.00; and “5. General mistreatment (water soiled, burned, dirty, ink, lipstick, paint)…1.50.” This copy is in good condition, the only “defacing” done by school ink stamps: “Property of….” And the slip, pasted to the inside cover, which has so fascinated me I’ve barely looked at the poems yet. 160 pages.

Immigrants from Earth

The astrophysicists are in the ascendancy again. That’s our takeaway from a 03.2019 National Geographic article. The key is light. The scientific industry is working to build something that will travel close to the speed of light. Laser beams, solar winds, and microscopic kites. Another key is funding. They’re working on a go fund me tsunami. Government dough is drying up, but there appears to be enough interest in the private sector to fuel ever more comic book fantasy.

Surprisingly, for all our technological advancements and discoveries, not much is known about the universe. Part of what’s driving the current science buzz is a new generation of telescopes that will provide pics of the light reflecting directly off of exoplanets. That light will contain information about what’s happening on the planet. Information like who lives there, their address, what they do for a living, and other census like questions.

Meantime, back on earth, in that same 03.2019 National Geographic issue, an article on El Salvador violence, titled “No Way Out,” helps explain the immigration crisis on the US southwest border. A map of El Salvador, titled “State of Fear,” using dots to show “Homicides by municipality, 2017,” could from a distance be confused with the Milky Way pic used on the cover of the issue.

One wonders what makes scientists think there might be intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe when evidence of intelligent life here on Earth seems close to non-existent. And why would other life forms, presumably far more technologically advanced or in other ways superior to ours, be interested in us? One scientist interviewed remarks the question is similar to asking why would humans be interested in reaching out to a colony of ants.

Ah, but there’s the rub. Maybe the ants are the aliens.

Coast Road Trip: Adage and Algae

The idea, now an adage, that a picture is worth a thousand words, seems to have come from early 20th Century advertising strategies. A picture might be worth more than a thousand words to an illiterate shopper, and advertising must be short and quick and hit hard enough to leave a brand image on the brain. The problem now for advertisers might be there are too many pictures. We are now uploading upwards of 2 billion photos daily to the Internet. If the early 1900’s advertising adage is true, that’s two trillion words, daily. It’s easy to see why a writer struggling to reach a goal of 500 words a day might resort to posting a pic or two. Or simply trade the blog in for an Instagram account. Digitized images are the algae of the Internet.

Mural in Harbor Zone, Crescent City, CA. Photo by Susan.

Coast Road Trip: Double Back

A reader of the Toads writes:

“Hi Joe,  I have been reading your travel posts . They seem familiar like maybe I’ve seen them before . The photos are recent , though , so I must be wrong about that.”

personal correspondence

That is precisely the problem with writing, with, indeed, life, the feeling we’ve been here before, Déjà vu, been there – done that. Yet we continue to imagine our future, awake and asleep, waiting for something new.

“I pity the poor immigrant
Who wishes he would’ve stayed home”

“I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” Bob Dylan, from John Wesley Harding, 1968.

“Make it new,” Ezra Pound said, over and over again. But if you make it too new, who will recognize it?

HAMM: Go and get the oilcan.
CLOV: What for?
HAMM: To oil the castors.
CLOV: I oiled them yesterday.
HAMM: Yesterday! What does that mean? Yesterday!
CLOV (violently): That means that bloody awful day, long ago, before this bloody awful day. I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent.
(Pause.)

“Endgame,” Samuel Beckett, 1957.

A Google search of “Yaquina Head Lighthouse” will bring up over 300,000 results (in .78 seconds, no less). Click on “images,” and you’ll see more than 500 pics of the lighthouse. Nevertheless, I now double back and offer readers of the Toads these entirely original never seen before pics of the lighthouse, freshly taken about a month ago:

Coast Road Trip: Sans Pics

A perspicacious reader asked why I haven’t posted any pics from the road trip. I’m working on moving toward a new kind of blog, more like the one I started, back in December of 2007, which contained no pics, just short bursts of writing pleasure. I had in mind the kind of posts the venerable E. B. White wrote in the early New Yorker.

“From 1925 to 1976 he crafted more than eighteen hundred pieces for the magazine and established, in the words of editor William Shawn, “a new literary form.” That form was the magazine’s Comment essay—a personal essay that was, in White’s hands, light in style yet often weighty in substance. As White noted in a 1969 Paris Review interview, > I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

“Eighty-Five from the Archive: E. B. White,” by Erin Overbey, The New Yorker, June 7, 2010.

Not that I ever achieved anything everyone might call, “not lousy.” In any case, I drifted away, or off, and into a kind of academic stream, where I imagined I might augment my adjunct work at the time. And I tried to bring some attention to the books I was working on, both reading and writing. Then I began to work-in more slant, though never totally “false,” and found the proverbial bottom of the barrel when I started putting up some poetry. And I recently considered retiring The Coming of the Toads, leaving it to sink to the bottom of the archive abyss of the Internet, where some future crab scuttling along might find a few morsels to criticize.

E. B. White’s idea of the short, personal essay (note the importance of that comma) has been replaced in many blogs by the personal pic essay, with and without words, the latter like Beckett’s short play, “Act Without Words.” And I suspect more reading is done on phones these days than when I started The Coming of the Toads on a desktop computer back in ’07, and the phone and other smaller size formats encourage changes in aspect ratios of screen, pics, and writing. And thinking about that, I decided to remove this blog’s header pic, begin writing with a minimum of pics altogether, returning to the short, personal note or comment type essay. I even thought of a new tagline for the title space: The Coming of the Toads: No links, No likes, No comments. I know that sounds a bit anti-social, but what I’m aiming for is clarity, simplicity – a clean, well-lighted blog.

Besides, I don’t get many comments or likes, and many that I do get appear to be from spam and bots, and I lost all the pics I took on our recent trip, mistakenly thinking I had backed up my phone photos to Google Photos when I had not, in the meantime deleting all the photos from my phone, then crashing my Instagram account trying to retrieve what I had at least saved there. Seems poetic justice for an anti-social attitude.

Having at this point already exceeded my target word limit, not to mention having probably lost my target audience, those interested in hearing more about the Road Trip, I give you this portfolio of road trip pics, all taken by my sister Barbara and Susan as I was trying on the lighthouse keeper’s uniform jacket at the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, north of Newport, trying to strike poses I imagined a lighthouse keeper might have aimed at were he the subject of a live, on the job photo shoot:

Note: Comments On for this post. Have fun!

Coast Road Trip: Cork Tree and Whale

We followed Dry Creek Road into the country northwest of Healdsburg to Lake Sonoma. Along the way, wineries, carefully cultivated vineyards, acre after acre of grapes. We stopped at the Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery in Dry Creek Valley, a snazzy estate with an “Italianate” villa with views of the valley and vineyards and with exuberant gardens, where we found a cork tree, this one some 50 years old, though they can age to 300 years, and one doesn’t want to start harvesting cork from their bark until they reach 50 years of age. The bark looked like cork, folds of it, and felt like cork, a hard sponge. The trunk was 4 or 5 feet wide.

I was reminded of the cork tree later when back in Depoe Bay, Oregon, we saw a whale, just off shore, bending in vertical dives, showing its back and sides, along the edge of the cliff just north of the harbor entrance. It was probably a gray whale. It was certainly alluring, and we watched for it a long time, and it came up every 10 minutes or so.

The smaller, less manicured wineries or vineyards, off hardpack dirt and gravel roads, with small wood buildings and just a few workers going about their chores – these we preferred to the larger, commercial estates.

Lake Sonoma is partially created with an earth dam over the valley, and we climbed up to the top of Rockpile Road and the bridge viewpoint where from a 3 story observation deck built with thick but old and now weathered timber, parts missing, we learned we were in feral pig country. Wine and pigs. What a life.

Sign posted above Sonoma Lake
Snazzy Ferrari-Carano Vineyards.
Cork tree.
Bark of cork tree.
Villa.

 

Coast Road Trip: Lighthouse Logbooks

At the end of the watch, the lighthouse keeper would record by hand in the lighthouse logbook activities. The lighthouse might have received visitors. An assistant had harvested herbs and onions from the garden. Someone passed away. A winter storm broke 14 windows. A dense fog cast the light in shade for most of the day. New coats of paint were finished on the window trim of the living quarters. Little Jack broke a toe climbing on the rocks down in the cove while trying to catch crabs.

Each entry in the logbooks seems akin to a kind of postcard travelers rarely send these days, a detail picture or drawing of the area on one side, a brief note on the other with updated narrative and description of activities.

We came across what looks to be a large sponge whale bone at low tide around the south end of the cove.

The tide is so low this week we are able to view sea life in all three zones: periwinkles in the splash; a sunflower star with 24 arms and a yard across in the terror zone; masses of mussels on the big rocks in the high-tide zone, and acorn barnacles.

Purple shore crabs had Aunt Hilly jumping about in her own crazy crab dance. While she yelled and blamed all of us for bringing her down to the beach to her ruin like the anti-social pelagic cormorant. She caught the bottom of her dress on a sharp rock and it ripped all the way up to her waist and she screamed and let out a bark like a seal.

Last night my lady’s malady nearly got the best of me.

A square built like Healdsburg’s, a one block square, shade tree filled park – with a gazebo bandstand – invites postcard writing.

John invited us to the outdoor Healdsburg High graduation ceremony, but we declined, opting instead for a visit to the square. Plaza Street, across Healdsburg Avenue, turns into a pedestrian walkway leading to Hotel Healdsburg, where we were headed for some happy hour jazz. I was expecting something built out of redwood around 1901; instead, we found ourselves ensconced underdressed in a modern stylish structure established, the entrance sign had announced, in 2001. No jazz, either, as we settled in to the sveldt sofas at tables in the sunken bar area. In front of a closed grand piano stood a young girl with a guitar and harmonica singing indie and classic folk songs. She was good, too. So while John was marching to pomp and circumstance in the heat and robe regalia across the sun drenched graduation field, we drank a cool beer in the posh, AC’d room of the hotel bar, listening to folk songs.

to be continued: this is part seven in a series covering our June 2019 coastal road trip.

Coast Road Trip: High Water Marks

Healdsburg turned on the heat for our arrival and stay, the temperature in the 90’s. My brother’s house stayed cool though under his big California Oak trees, and we slept with the windows open and ceiling fans running. John, old surfer and teacher that he is, always awakes early. I got up early, refreshed but with that feeling you get after awaking in someone else’s bed and for a moment don’t remember where you are. No one else seemed up and about, so I took off walking. I walked to the high school and across the baseball fields. I stood at home plate, taking a couple of high and outside fastballs. Then a curve aimed at my belt broke slow in my zone over the plate and I belted it out to left center, an in the park home run, though I walked the bases, and after touching home declined the interviews with the excuse I had to get back to John’s place.

John and I drove out to Jimtown Store, east of the Russian River, which half circles Healdsburg, for some coffee. A small bridge crosses the river, the road falls suddenly like the Pike roller coaster at Long Beach, a panoramic view of a wine valley flashes, and you’re on the valley floor heading east.

Seems everywhere we went around Healdsburg a former student of John’s said hello. John was just awarded teacher of the year for this past session, but the tall fellow working the Jimtown store today was a former field and track star who quickly recognized his former coach.

I was eight and a half years old when my brother John was born, the fifth in a family of ten kids, the first to be born in California. I was in the front yard playing when Dad walked Mom out to our 1956 Ford wagon, parked in the driveway on Mariposa, to tootle off to the hospital. Mom was never in labor for more than a couple of hours. Some girls have all the luck.

At Jimtown we drank some ice coffee and climbed back into John’s rig and headed back to Healdsburg. Grapes growing here, there, and everywhere. Some old, some newly planted. Up hills, down into valleys. And where no grapes, oaks, a few redwoods still, pines. Bay, willow, maple. Grasses, yarrow. Shrubs. Wineries. At a crossroads signs pointing this way and that to this or that winery. Not by bread alone. Bread and red, white, and rose.

Near the Russian River to the northeast of Healdsburg, John pulled over near an old barn off the side of the road and pointed out the high water marks folks had painted on the siding over the years. Historic floods. Several years where we were now standing we would have been more than 20 feet under water. The homemade historical markers seemed more dramatic and effectively sobering about man’s indifference to nature than the new tsunami signs we’d seen up north near the ocean on Highway 101.

to be continued: this is part six in a series covering our June 2019 coastal road trip.