Notes on Writing

What we call the need to write can cause depression, and all kinds of other adverse reactions.

If one does not enjoy the act of writing without objectives, mission statement, goals, needs, then one should not write. Writing for that writer will be work.

The best writing comes from play.

There is no need to write. The feeling some may have of that need is an illusion, or a mask that is disguising some other need, which can only be satisfied by not writing.

Writing is not important, but that is not to say it is without consequence.

“Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can talk with him?” Zhuangzi.

from Artaud: “The whole literary scene is a pigpen, especially today. All those who have points of reference in their minds, I mean on a certain side of their heads, in well-localized areas of their brains, all those who are masters of their language, all those for whom words have meanings, all those for whom there exists higher levels of the soul and currents of thought, those who represent the spirit of the times, and who have named these currents of thought, I am thinking of their meticulous industry and of that mechanical creaking which their minds give off in all directions—are pigs.

Those for whom certain words have meaning, and certain modes of being, those who are so precise, those for whom emotions can be classified and who quibble over some point of their hilarious classifications, those who still believe in “terms,” those who discuss the ranking ideologies of the age, those whom women discuss so intelligently and the women themselves who speak so well and who discuss the currents of the age, those who still believe in an orientation of the mind, those who follow paths, who drop names, who recommend books—these are the worst pigs of all.

You are quite unnecessary, young man!”

“All writing is garbage.” But it’s garbage that’s interesting. And what, after all, is the purpose of garbage? When readers are like mushrooms?

To write well, one must learn to become someone else, the one who does not care.

Writing is learned while writing, and in no other way, yet a good writer is a good reader.

Writing comes not from words, but from smells and odors and tastes, sounds, itches and bites, still lifes. From kitchens and bathrooms (not libraries), from bedrooms, from basements and garages and attics, from alleys and vacant lots and abandoned dwellings.

Writing is like an unmade bed.

Notes on Caleb Crain’s “Overthrow”

In spite of embedded Shakespeare and sundry 19th Century potential footnotes, Caleb Crain’s new novel, “Overthrow” (Viking, August, 2019), may remind readers more of the William Powell and Myrna Loy films that made noir comedies out of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man” than to Henry James (who, it might be argued, made drama out of living room comedy). The plot of “Overthrow” might also be said to parody the best of legal action writer John Grisham. Nick Hornby comes to mind, too, his “A Long Way Down.”

“Overthrow” is a protean novel. Ingredients of farce, satire and irony inform contemporary ideas of group-think, economics, media, conspiracy theory, identity and relationships, existential earworms. “The media” performs the role of Keystone Cops, as do the real cops, chasing the story controlled by puppeteers, whose rods and strings get crossed.

As essay, “Overthrow” might be subtitled: “Where we live and what we live for.” And when. The slow, slow art of the novel. Who remembers the Occupy Movement, which may now be recalled as more of a campout than a revolution? If (to) Occupy is the protagonist, who or what is the antagonist? But first, what does Occupy want? To seize? To have sex with?

Is overthrow of governance periodically necessary to maintain a balance of human nature? Has human nature improved over time, or are we no better than any of our ancestors? Or, indeed, were our ancestors better off than us: non-specialized, at one with nature, unpolluted, non-alphabetic. Did our ancestors, as we do, have a picture of themselves? If not, when were these pictures invented? Were the pictures they had of themselves the same pictures others had of them? Overthrow and revolution of the I, the me, subject and object.

Not what does revolution mean, but what does it mean to make revolution? Certainly not to write a novel. But, yes, that, too, as it turns out, particularly a novel about building relationships. Is human nature capable of democracy? Can we “rule ourselves”? The question is important to Michael Hardt in Astra Taylor’s “Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers,” which predates Zuccotti Park Occupy by a few years. And while many thought and still do that the Occupy Movement was a failure, its aims unclear, its results a discredit to the possibility of change, using Hardt’s thinking, it achieved a great step on the road to democracy: Occupy created relationships, corresponded directly to participant lives, illustrated (arguably) collective self-rule, or, at least, to go back and use Hardt’s words, it might have created “the terrain on which the training in democracy can happen – the training and the collective ability to produce social relationships” (149, The New Press, 2009).

And producing social relationships is what “Overthrow” is about, in its most serious reading, the goofy stuff aside. Why write a book no one will read? A poem no one will ever see? A song no one will ever hear? Similarly, why a pick-up? Why a one night stand, as if a relationship requires no more investment than a moment in a head, an hour or two on a couch, or a night in bed but easily forgotten? We aren’t in “City of Night.”

Crain’s sentences come alive, twisted and contorted as we find tree and bush limbs in nature, beautiful. Cultivated, maybe, by some unseen hands, and, at times, readers might think, they are overthrown. You can’t take a comb to them. But we don’t get quite as much of that as we did in “Necessary Errors” (Penguin, 2013). Maybe because “Overthrow” has more dialog. Still, consider this artwork, and note the consistent style that isn’t so much rococo decorative but the way the world actually passes by, in and out of the senses, projection and reflection. The description and detail of observation suggest total control, and objective correlative emotions appear and disappear, as nostalgic fits can sometimes be brought on by certain odors or sounds, but which can only appear at random and not be called up by will, only by suggestion, asides of a sort:

From “Necessary Errors”:

            They passed into the black water of the shade of the bridge. Out of the corner of either eye, Jacob watched the gray, triangular battlements slide up from behind and widen, approaching them on either side, in embrace. Then the bridge itself crossed overhead with its water-blackened stones. While it covered them, hands seemed cupped over their ears; all they could hear was the water’s eager lapping against the heavy walls beside them.

            “Are you fair to him?” Annie asked.

            The black stones lifted off, and the air was free and empty again around them. “It’s not like that.” He watched recede the semicircular – circular, in the water’s haphazard mirroring – portal through which they had passed (391).

From “Overthrow”:

             After looking down, Matthew by reflex looked up, into the beautiful double rigging of the old bridge, which was unusual in that it was both a cable-stayed and a suspension bridge, doubly supported because its builders had meant for it to stand for all time. Cables that spread at an angle crossed cables that fell straight down, interlacing like fingers and creating diamonds that in their sequence of gradually varying dimension seemed to be unfolding as Leif and Matthew rode past them.

            They crossed the water; they descended into downtown (55).

What is overthrown remains out of reach. One of the themes circling through “Overthrow” concerns a kind of deontological question of the value of certain activity or action, of writing for example, of writing a poem or a book. The answer seems to rest in giving way to what it is a person might be fit for:

            This was something he could do, he told himself, as he kept dabbing. This was the sort of task he could safely spend his anger on. Even if he didn’t save the plant and even if the plant didn’t in fact need saving (298).

Substitute planet for plant in that paragraph. Matthew is looking for a way out of his cynicism:

He had written a note about Samuel Daniel, he remembered. But what if he was interested in Daniel and touched by Daniel’s devotion to his vocation only because he himself, in choosing to write literary criticism, was making a mistake like Daniel’s – giving his life to a kind of writing that was about to pass out of the world? To a modern equivalent of Daniel’s poeticized, aestheticized history?

            He picked up the forked paper, to read over the note, but the handwriting wasn’t his.

            “You can read it,” Lief said, appearing at the door.

            “I thought it was mine.”

            “It’s the devil,” Leif said. “It’s one of his voices.”

            “I don’t need to read it” (219).

What can be worse for a writer than to presume his writing won’t be read? The “Overthrow” working group, which Matthew joins but only peripherally, his object being Leif, and not revolution, is apparently under surveillance, yet the authorities miss that the group has maintained a blog. So much for blogging. Crain’s theme of what has meaning, purpose, and value against what is given exposure, watched, and chosen touches on every aspect of the characters’ lives:

            “She wondered if he would give permission. She wondered if he was still willing to fight, regardless of whether he still believed. The new order had revealed to them that poems didn’t have to be published in order to have meaning as poems, but apparently the same order was also going to require the publication of all the prose of one’s life” (377).

In Stalin’s Russia, one had only to think a certain thing to be accused and convicted of a crime. But how did they know what one was thinking?

Hardback copies with dust covers occupy the bookshelves of the conservative library. Conservative in lots of ways, but here in the sense that writers and readers want their books to retain their value, even increase in value over time. We want that piece of capitalistic system to succeed, and to ensure our own success. The economics of the body, the body of the book, its spine, sewn, its jacket, shield against the elements, nomenclature (either or fallacy of identity – “Then he began to curse and swear, saying, ‘I do not know the Man!’”). Is the hardback economically efficient? Books as collectibles. What does a book become without its dust cover? Its value diminishes significantly as a collectible. Aren’t paperbacks “cooler”? Is the hardback a middle class writer’s heyday? “Occupy” is a novel: this is not a book review. If we are going to spend $27.00 for a hardback book with a cool dust cover, shouldn’t we at least expect not to trip over any typos?

But if we think books expensive, consider the cost of obtaining legal help:

            “I know your parents are already being so generous.”

            “How much was it?”

            “About twenty-eight hundred dollars.”

            For a couple of days’ work. The side of town where Matthew’s parents lived was built on a hill, up which he and Fosco were gradually proceeding, a long, slow hill that, as was always explained to new arrivals in town, served as an objective correlative of the relative financial net worth of the households along it. Blocks ahead, at the top, were mansions with a view of the distant city. Matthew’s parents lived more than halfway down, where the houses were still faced with brick and perfectly respectable but not grand (209).

In other words, middle class, but “more than halfway down,” so maybe lower middle class. In any case, we are talking about a generation of a country’s youth who will not live even that high up the hill, except maybe as they are now, living in the garage or the basement, trying to pay off their student loans on the income of a barista, a fact checker, a literary critic:

            “Let me talk to my parents,” Mathew said. “Thank you for telling me.”

            Was he going to ruin them?

Mathew has already explained “reversion”:

            “There’s an old legal term, ‘reversion,’” Mathew began. “You possess something in reversion if another person has the use of it now but you’ll get it after they die. Someone from another branch of your family may be living in a manor, say, and it will be yours if you manage to outlive them. Sometimes Shakespeare uses the word metaphorically, to mean anything in your future, anything you’re looking forward to, but legally, technically, it’s something you might not live long enough to put your hands on. My thesis is that in the poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the individual is no longer thinking of himself as the subject of a king but as someone who himself has a kingship in reversion” (43).

In other words, as Harold Bloom put it, the “invention of the human,” the creation of the I. Who will pay for that me? The King, in reversion, overthrown:

            Mathew demurred. “Representative democracy works a little differently….”

            “People don’t really want to be king anymore,” said Raleigh. “There aren’t even any lunatics in the asylums who want to be Napoleon anymore.”

            “Maybe they want to be reversionary one-percenters,” suggested Elspeth.

            “One percenters are too boring,” Raleigh objected.

            “They have no charismatic virtues,” said Mathew.

            “They have no charismatic vices,” Raleigh corrected him. “They would be charming if they would only let us see them being greedy and trivial.”

            “I wouldn’t find them charming,” Elspeth said.

            “Yes you would,” Raleigh insisted. “They’d be like the millionaires in screwball comedies” (44).

One thing Raleigh might have wrong in the conversation from “Overthrow” quoted above is the “lunatics in the asylums,” since asylums, like newspapers, have mostly disappeared, beginning with Reagan in California.

“I think another reason the notion of revolution has been discredited is its association with misery, as if revolution would involve giving up all of the pleasures that everyone enjoys” (Hardt, 153).

But the asylum is now the streets. And Hardt and Taylor, in “Examined Life,” are rowing in a boat on Central Park Lake:

“It’s such an idyllic and seemingly anti- or even counterrevolutionary location, one associated with old wealth and the stability of power, the leisure activities of the rich. Maybe, in a strange way, it will help us work through some of these issues like who can think revolution, who wants revolution, where we can think revolution, and who would benefit. Maybe this seemingly strange location can help us cast away what seem to me destructive limitations on how we think about this” (Hardt, 153).

If we think about it at all. And if we do, if we choose to read or maybe even to write about it, kings of our spirals, our unpublished napkins, our unread blogs. And then, frosting on the cake we’ve been let eat and chocolate in the latte we’ve been let drink, to talk to someone about it.

Bells, part 3, Relax

We should probably be wary of statements beginning with the pronouncement, “Never before, in the history of the world….”

Nevertheless, given our current world predicament, we might find ourselves in need of some relaxation – seemingly, like never before.

In his little book titled “How to Relax,” the monk Thich Nhat Hanh begins:

“You don’t need to set aside special time for resting and relaxing. You don’t need a special pillow or any fancy equipment. You don’t need a whole hour. In fact, now is a very good time to relax” (page 6, “How to Relax,” Parallax Press, 2015).

The same might be said for writing. You don’t need a fancy machine, a special desk or pen, or even a purpose. What you need – is a bell.

“There is tranquility, peace, and joy within us, but we have to call them forth so they can manifest. Inviting a bell to sound is one way to call forth the joy and tranquility within” (page 100).

Thich Nhat Hanh gives us a poem to remind us of the bell we want to listen for, to hear, to send out to others:

“Body, speech, and mind in perfect oneness,
I send my heart along with the sound of this bell.
May all the hearers awaken from forgetfulness,
and transcend the path of anxiety and sorrow” (page 100).

And we don’t need a fancy blog template or website to write. Again, nevertheless, here at The Coming of the Toads, I’ve experimented with a few of the WordPress templates over time. But what did I want, if not simply to write? This isn’t the only place, the only way, I write. I keep a pocket notebook in the left rear pocket of my pants (detail for readers in need), unlined because I like to doodle and wander. I keep a spiral notebook in a desk drawer. I started The Coming of the Toads, after a few hesitant starts, in December of 2007, and have posted something at least monthly since. Why then, lately, have I been having thoughts of ending it?

I wasn’t “inviting the bell.” Not Poe’s “the tintinabulation of the bells,” nor his “anger of the bells,” nor his “moaning and the groaning of the bells.” But the bell of the muse. I like this etymological note from Oxford: “Middle English: from Old French muser ‘meditate, waste time’, perhaps from medieval Latin musum ‘muzzle’.” Writing involves a good amount of self-muzzle, or should. First, we might want to relax. Invite the bell. Then take up the pen and notebook, or open the blog.

This is the third piece in a series on bells at The Coming of the Toads.

Bells, part 2, A Morning Caper

A half mile walk from my house up to the church, up Center Street and across the train tracks to Pine, across to Bungalow Drive and up to Holly Avenue, then up to Maryland Avenue and past the swimming pool and through Hilltop Park, and across Grand Avenue, where you could see a sliver of the ocean where the road cut through the dunes a mile off, and into the church. The morning remains a fragmented run-on I frequently recall.

But I could not see the ocean that morning, the morning of the caper of the bells, because it was still dark out. I was altar boy for the week at the 5:15 AM mass. The church was still locked. I went through the gate between the rectory and sacristy entrance of the church. But the sacristy was also locked. I didn’t see any lights on in the rectory. I did not know exactly what time it was. Dad had rousted me from bed, and I got dressed and left without a word between the two of us. I sat down on the church porch and with my back against the sacristy door, fell asleep.

I don’t know how long I’d been sleeping when the priest woke me up, unlocked the door, and in we went. I put on my cassock and filled the water and wine cruets and took them out to the table beside the altar. Meanwhile, the priest went out to unlock the doors to the church and came back in to put on his vestments, quietly saying his prayers while dressing, not a word between the two of us.

I led the way out the sacristy side door to the altar, the priest behind me bearing his chalice in two hands, stopped and backed up to allow him to pass to the center. Only the front of the church was lit with lights, the back kept dark, because there were only a few  people scattered in the front pews: a couple of nuns in full regalia, a high school student no doubt doing penance for some heinous sin, a couple of old women wearing hats and holding rosaries, and Mr. Mulligan, in for his morning pick-me-up.

The congregation rose as the priest and I walked to the altar. I took up my position at the bottom of the stairs, he climbed to the altar, and the magic show went live. The mass was still being said in Latin, and I completed the dialog with the priest with my responses in Latin, although I understood little of what I was saying. But I liked the sounds of the Latin words, like magic incantations.

There was no sermon in these early morning masses, communion went quickly with so few communicants, and the whole affair was over in 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the mood of the priest. The priest kept his back to the congregation. And while we said the prayers of the dialog, we kept our voices to a near whisper, as if afraid we might awaken the statues of the saints, and by the time of the hush that settled in at the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I was sound asleep on my knees.

The priest was clicking with his thumb and finger at me, trying to get my attention. I awoke stupefied and grabbed the bells and starting ringing them. But it wasn’t time for the bells. It was time for me to get up and go to the side table and get the cruets of water and wine and carry them up the steps to the priest so he could wash his fingers and take a drink of wine. I realized my mistake, put down the bells, and carried on. The ringing of the bells at the wrong place in the ceremony must have awoken the entire congregation from their prayerful morning slumber.

I gave my bell experience to Isaac, one of Henry Killknot’s younger brothers, in “Penina’s Letters.” Henry shares Isaac’s ringing of the bells at the wrong moment to Salty, Penina, and Puck, who have driven over to Saint Gelda Church in Venice to attend Isaac’s First Holy Communion ceremony. Henry finds the story hilarious, and creates a local ruckus around their pew as he tells it to the others. Salty smiles, but Penina and Puck don’t really understand what it’s all about.

This is the second in a series of pieces on bells at The Coming of the Toads.

Bells

Manual typewriters contained a bell that rang to signal the coming of the end of a line. The typist could adjust where along the line the bell might ring. Shorter lines…Longer lines. The faster typist increased the frequency of the bells one heard. When the bell rang, the typist had but a few strokes left before reaching up with left hand to push the typewriter carriage return lever to the far right to reset the type guide at the left margin of the paper to begin a new line.

I got a new job, in a large, corporate office, flying paper airplanes. During the day, the three story building housed around 500 employees sitting at grey metal desks. There were a few managerial secretaries with typewriters. The rest of us used the typing pool. All you had to do was pick up your phone, dial the typing pool extension, and, when you heard the bell, begin dictation. Finished, you could let the piece fly, or ask that it be delivered to your desk via the office mail to proof and return to the pool or place in the outgoing mail.

There was a procedure for just about everything. New procedural bulletins arrived regularly. Some updated older bulletins or clarified procedural details. Others introduced new procedures. Sometimes, a section meeting would be devoted to reviewing a new procedure before its effective date. In short order, most procedures were memorized, but employees also stuck notes around their desks to remind themselves of key procedural steps. For procedures that never became part of routine, one referenced a procedural manual, which was an encyclopedia of procedure bulletins, collected by category and number. Employees also made notes in these manuals, and flagged the most frequently referenced pages.

The mailroom was located in the basement. The mailroom employees were also heavily burdened with procedures. The cafeteria was located on the top floor, and afforded views of the surrounding area, which included a freeway interchange. There was a patio on one side of the cafeteria, with tables with chairs and umbrellas, where one could take a coffee or sandwich and enjoy the fresh air.

There were procedures for evacuating the building, in case of emergency, initiated by the ringing of signal bells over the public address speaker system. These bells also controlled the start and end of the work day as well as the start and end of break and lunch periods. The workday started at 7:30, signaled by the single ring of a bell. Employees were expected to be seated and working at the bell; otherwise, they might be considered tardy. This was explained in the Personnel Procedure Manual. Employees took breaks in shifts, so that no section or department was ever completely idle. Morning breaks ran from 9:30 to 9:45 and from 10:00 to 10:15. A bell signaled the beginning and ending of each break. Thus four bells would ring at fifteen minute intervals. Lunch break was 45 minutes, and ran from 11:30 to 12:15 and 12:15 to 1:00. An efficient three bells sufficed. In the afternoon, four bells rang again for breaks, beginning at 2:30 and ending at 3:15. A final bell rang at 4:30 and the building quickly emptied, faster than for a fire drill.

By procedure, the secretaries placed dust covers over their typewriters at the end of the workday.

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.

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: 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!