How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 8
Chapter 3: Art, Poetry, and Beauty
Part 1: Leftover Pizza Is Not Art
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In philosophy, as in many other disciplines, good definitions are the product of lengthy debate…. Children talk, and know what they are talking about, although they cannot define even one of the terms they use. Using and understanding a language does not involve being able to define its terms…. Definition allows us to improve our use of language…. —Norman Swartz, “Definitions, Dictionaries, and Meaning” Copyright © Norman Swartz 1997
This revision: September 27, 1997. Department of Philosophy, Simon Fraser University
Art: A Definite ‘Maybe”
Now, let’s define and clarify our terms.
Art, poetry, beauty, and the self are huge ideas, not easily defined. The practice of defining is practically a science in itself, one that is rather neatly described by philosopher Norman Swartz (quoted above) in “Definitions, Dictionaries, and Meaning.” In that article, Swartz describes seven types of definitions. The type we will be using here is called “operational.” Briefly, an operational definition is one that we agree to agree on, whether or not it is strictly accurate.*
I have chosen and adapted the definitions that I believe will be most useful to us. Here are a few to get us started:
In short, art (including poetry) requires creativity, emotional honesty, originality, skill, imagination, and intention. In our current context, beauty and spirituality must also be present.
For there to be art, there must be an artist. Therefore, according to our operational definition…
Leftover pizza is not art
Just as you can call yourself Arnot-Jean-Jacques Feuillette [Seventh Sanctum French Male Name Generator ] or Belching Doom Kangaroo [Seventh Sanctum Humorous Monster Name Generator] if you want to, you can string a bunch of words together and call them a poem:
The magneto lurches into fetid paste
spurning the crispy scythe
on a poaching ä safari in Kenya
shadowing the uncommon solicitor. **
U Ua-Uo U (uracil) (NLM) UA UAA UAG
UAL Ubidecarenone Ubiquinone
Ubiquitin Ubiquitination Ubiquitous
UBT UDP-glucuronosyltransferase UGA
UL Ulcer Ulcer aphthous Ulcer
Buruli Ulcer duodenal Ulcer esophageal ***
At a poetry reading, you could breathe raggedly into the microphone for precisely seventeen seconds and then pronounce the word ruction — and call it a poem.
The following “poem” consists of randomly selected html code:
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SRC=”BookFeatherPen.gif” WIDTH=”70″ HEIGHT=”62″ ALIGN=”BOTTOM”
ATURALSIZEFLAG=”3″ BORDER=”0″><FONT SIZE=”-2″ FACE=”Verdana”>Historical
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If art is merely “an expression of human creativity”—a widely held belief—then anyone can be an artist. You don’t have to take classes or anything. There’s no particular discipline involved. You thought of it, you created it; ergo, it’s art.
Let’s say you have created a painting that looks something like this (the outside border is the frame):
It’s art, all right, no question about it — an “expression of your creativity.” But surely you have applied your creativity at other times in other ways that might not qualify as “art.” Like the time you told your dad you had been detained at a roadblock while law-enforcement officers searched hundreds of vehicles for an escaped homicidal maniac, and that’s why you got home past your curfew. “Creative,” your dad said, and then he grounded you “for your own protection” until the missing maniac had been returned to custody.
Notwithstanding, you take your painting, which you have titled Dash, to an art gallery for validation by a real professional art personage, but Monsieur is unavailable at present. Still, you are encouraged by the inscrutability of the other works of art on display, although, examining them closely, you wish you had thought to vomit on your work of art before framing it.
Depending on the year and the location, you might see the following examples of art in the world’s most respected museums:
Piss Christ, a crucifix immersed in the urine of the artist, Andres Serrano. This is one of Serrano’s more traditional works.
Tom Friedman’s Untitled, a dead ladybug in a Styrofoam cup, which sold for almost $30,000.
Other works given the stamp of approval by critics and patrons of the arts include
This poem (reproduced here in its entirety):
The poet, Aram Saroyan, explains that his intent was to change the word light “from a verb (the agency of illumination) to a noun that yet radiates as light does. The double ghgh seems to work in that way.” The poem was published in the 1969 American Literary Anthology [Source: Rapportage, the literary journal of the Lancaster Literary Guild, Fall 2005].
A novel consisting of blank pages.
A musical work by composer John Cage titled 4’33” (Four Minutes Thirty-Three Seconds), in which a pianist sits at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without playing a single note.
My opinion on the more mystifying or malodorous forms of art mentioned above is that they represent a variety of artists and motives:
The genuine artist who has been formally trained, has exhibited talent, and has grown bored with pretty pictures and conventional media (water colors, for example, as opposed to the more exotic elephant dung à la The Holy Virgin by Chris Ofili).
The person who may or may not have talent but whose principal motive is to shock.
The artist who wants to make a social or political statement, illustrating the ugliness and depravity that surrounds us, as if we didn’t know.
The con artist who has seen an easy way to make $20,000 and get invited to lecture at prestigious universities by creatively assembling the contents of a wastebasket using duct tape, which can be analyzed for its likeness to the ephemeral quality of substantial yet emergent flora that have been dispossessed of their progression toward ultimate decay and regeneration… which everybody swallows (figuratively) because they don’t want to admit that they think it’s stupid.
The true artistic genius who is totally out of my league.
I repeat, art is not merely “an expression of human creativity.” If it were, then Auschwitz was art.
Art is disciplined
Few would argue that art is an external expression (a dance, a sculpture) of a spiritual or at least an intangible quality (such as love, beauty, anger, or despair). I believe, with Keats, that “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” I am unable to separate spirit from beauty, or to believe that whatever emanates from the life-force common to us all can lack either truth or beauty.
Again, beauty is essential in our operational definitions of art and poetry. In theory, however, I am willing to entertain other viewpoints.
Possibly, if the picker-upper is legitimately an artist. As my poetry professor at Stanford University explained when we wanted to let our free spirits loose on paper and he made us write sonnets instead: You must work from the inside out; examine the interior of your territory before you explore the nether reaches; know what the boundaries are before you stretch them; internalize the discipline until it is part of you; master the discipline in order to not be mastered by it.
I know a few people who have arranged every aspect of their lives so as to spend as much time as possible hang-gliding or soaring. “It is the ultimate experience in freedom,” they say. “It sounds wonderful,” I say. “I’d like to try it.”
Do they hand me their gear and say, “Great idea. Go for it”? No. They warn me about the expense and the hours of training and practice and the necessary physical conditioning and the skills, specific to the sport, they had to acquire. The cost of freedom was servitude to the goal.
In these pages we are concerned with the discipline of poetry as a tool to realize your potential for joy.***** We are not “searching for joy” or “journeying toward joy.” The joy is right here, right now. It might be guilt-bound, fear-encrusted, or anger-suffused. It might be hiding in your gut, having run for cover from an abusive parent or an oppressive spouse. (Many people, not all of whom are modern-day snake-oil salesmen or delusional, believe that the site of a physical illness is related to the way in which you have tried to shield your core being from harm.)
* “Many philosophers have chosen… to leave some terms undefined… [claiming that we] cannot define being, unity and similar concepts.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definition, accessed January 12, 2008
** Assembled from numerous Random Sentence Generators on the Internet
*** MedicineNet.com medical dictionary
**** Duchamp’s urinal, which he exhibited as My Fountain (1917) created quite a fuss in the art world, as did Emin’s My Bed. According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Bed), “the artwork generated considerable media furor, particularly over the fact that the bedsheets were stained with body secretions and the floor had items from the artist’s room (such as condoms [and] a pair of panties with menstrual period stains…. The bed was presented as it had been when Emin had not got up from it for several days due to suicidal depression…. [During the Tate exhibition] two performance artists, Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi, jumped on the bed with bare torsos in order to ‘improve’ the work, …[calling] their performance Two Naked Men Jump Into Tracey’s Bed. The men also had a pillow fight on the bed for around fifteen minutes, to applause from the crowd, before being removed by security guards.”
***** We will explore the discipline of poetry in “The Therapeutic Value of Strict Poetic Forms” in a later chapter. Gosh, that sounds so pompous. A better title might be, “When You Focus on Form, Feeling Flows.” It’s alliterative, too.
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How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 6
Chapter 2, Part 3: Participating in Your Own Creation
We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims. —Buckminster Fuller
Hear from the heart wordless mysteries! Understand what cannot be understood! In man’s stone-dark heart there burns a fire That burns all veils to their root and foundation. When the veils are burned away, the heart will understand completely… Ancient Love will unfold ever-fresh forms in the heart of the Spirit, in the core of the heart. —Rumi
Let’s assume that you have your systems in place. You have workable plans for taking care of your basic physical needs — food, water, shelter from excessive heat or cold — and for maintaining health and energy by exercising, eating properly, getting enough sleep, having medical checkups, and so forth. You have a system for acquiring other physical necessities — housing, clothes, furniture, transportation — and for keeping them in good working order. You have a system that sees to your social needs; perhaps you live in a family and belong to the Red Hat Society or have breakfast with your buddies at the grain co-op.
So life ticks along. It is not just one big emergency after another. Should an emergency arise, you have a system for dealing with it. A well-ordered life can be very satisfying, especially after a time of chaos.
For human beings, there are two problems with a life that is merely well organized:
It is not ultimately fulfilling. Once we have achieved order, there remains a nagging discontent.
In the universe of possible events and experiences, we have control over very little.
The futility of control
There are several ways of dealing with the things we can’t control. Six of them are mentioned below. I can recommend numbers 1, 5, and 6 — which are closely related — having used them myself with excellent results. Conversely, every experience I have had with strategies 2 through 4 has ended badly.
1. Living in the moment
This is the response favored by the Lilies of the Field. “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” [From the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 7, New King James Version] 25 Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
28 So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
(I wonder if Jesus was prophetically referring to an event that would take place some two thousand years later, when I went out of town for a few days and left my adolescent son in the care of a trusted neighbor. As it happened, I arrived home several hours early. I walked through the door and knew instantly that grass had been thrown into the oven. My son and the trusted neighbor’s son, David, had, under cover of night, harvested several stalks of an illicit crop discovered in a fenced backyard a few blocks away. The boys were nowhere to be seen, and the phone was ringing. I picked it up. It was Officer Holmgren, and this was not my first conversation with him, nor would it be my last.)
31 Therefore do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek you first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
Living in the moment is also the favored response of your Labrador. Look at him, snoozing in his square of sunlight. Is he worried about his next meal? Is the threat of a bioterrorist attack gnawing at his innards? No. He is at peace, secure in the knowledge that when something gnaws at his innards he need only leap onto your stomach while you are sleeping, lick your face to wake you up, and fix you with a Look of such potent worshipfulness that you would break eight of the Ten Commandments to give him his two cups of kibble.
The above-cited passage from the Beatitudes, part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, asserts that seeking the kingdom of God is the ultimate anti-entropy strategy. Mow the lawn and make entries in your planning calendar if you must, Jesus might have said, but first, emulate your Labrador and his attitude of potent worshipfulness.
2. Attaining power
As people acquire money and influence, they also gain more control over certain aspects of their lives. If you are poor and a tree falls on your house, you have big trouble. If you are wealthy and a tree falls on your house, you can just pay somebody to fix it.
3. The illusion of controlling the uncontrollable
This futile strategy is often employed by people who want to make their spouses or children behave in certain ways. Trying to make somebody love you, or adopt your values, or practice your religion, are examples of trying to control the uncontrollable—as are roughly ninety-five percent of city ordinances and state and federal laws, and virtually all wars.
There are many ways of distracting yourself from the ever-present threat of being struck by an asteroid while you are walking down the street. Diversions range from “keeping busy” to watching television to injecting temazepam in your eyeballs.
I could have included meditation under “living in the moment,” above. But I wanted to make a point: Dealing with the things we can’t control by trying to control them anyway, or by gaining power or through diversion, assumes that the cosmos is a hostile place. If we can’t control it, it must be dangerous. Most forms of meditation, however, view all the uncontrollables as part of a neutral or benevolent universe of infinite possibility.
Acting creatively through the arts is an exercise of genuine power. At its loftiest, it is a spiritual practice and the artist inhabits a transcendent, spiritual universe where all things are possible. This is not an “escape from reality,” as critics protest. The artist is not unaware of global terrorism or gang violence or the execrable conditions under which much of the world’s population lives. These are entropic conditions, and art, by definition, brings order out of chaos. The artist is a healer and a peacemaker, but her focus is on the ideals of healing and peace rather than on hatred and violence.
That, really, is what this book is about.
Lesson 6.1 Assignment
Emotional altitude and organization
People worry. It’s unfortunate, but there you are.
The world is full of magic. I don’t mean phenomena that violate natural law. I mean that, in the vast body of natural law, we know maybe a toenail. Maybe a bacterium on a toenail. And by “we,” I mean “everybody in the world, including Stephen Hawking.”
We think that A plus B equal C, and often they do, assuming that we can wrap our minds around A and B, as in 2 plus 3 equal 5.
But then it gets a little more complicated. Two plus three of what? Apples?
Two apples plus three apples, plus some cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, butter, an hour or so in the oven at 325F, and a little love and artistry, equal warm apple crisp upon which you must spoon an avalanche of real whipped cream. Then you serve it to your friends in pretty blue bowls, set upon doilies, set upon pretty blue saucers.
Our emotional geography is often mapped vertically. When we feel good, we are “up,” when we feel bad we are “down.” Fill in the spaces below with at least five more examples in each column. (Phrases beginning with highly, as in “highly pleased,” don’t qualify.)
Lesson 6.2: Assignment
Everything’s under control
Other expressions of how we feel are related to space in a different way. Feeling good is equated with unity – being all of a piece. Feeling bad is related to entropy – being scattered or dispersed. Fill in the blanks below with at least three more examples in each column.
Please send assignments, OR assignment summaries or comments, via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net.
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How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 5
Chapter 2, Part 2: Why We Need Poetry
Are babies programmed for language?
Current linguistic research is exploring the hypothesis that “children [are]… programmed to learn language, just as they seem to be programmed to learn to walk… Indeed, children in the first five years of life have such a remarkable facility for language that they can effortlessly learn two structurally quite different languages simultaneously—if, for instance, their mother is Chinese and their father American—without displaying the slightest signs of stress or confusion.” *
In other words, according to the theory advanced by Noam Chomsky and others, babies are apparently wired to get what’s inside their heads—thoughts, ideas, questions—out into the Great, Wide World, through the medium of language.
Part of the evidence for an “innate appreciation of language,” according to Bill Bryson, writing in The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way, is that children everywhere, in every culture, whatever its language, no matter how complex or “wildly inflected” it is, learn to speak in exactly the same way.* By the time they are barely a month old, they show a preference for the sounds of speech over all others. Their infant babbling consists of the same sounds and commences at the same time—four to six months before they begin to talk. Their first words are simple labels (Me, Da), advancing to subject-verb combinations (Me want, Da go), and so on—my older son excepted. His sister, who was nearly 11 when her baby brother Jack was born, recorded in his Baby Book that his first words were carrots and onomatopoeia.
Additional research appears to confirm the theory that “children are programmed for language,” which is good news for those of us who use poetry as a way of gaining access to buried emotions and inclinations. Learning the discipline of expressing ourselves through poetry creates a channel to the unconscious—one that is wide enough to accommodate something as unruly as rage, but narrow enough to keep all our feelings from spilling out at once so that we can identify what emerges bit by bit.
Staying alive: God trumps entropy
This is not a religious book. Virtually anyone who wants to write poetry and to grow in self-knowledge and self-expression can benefit from it.
As a person who experiences God in all things, I am unable to write a shopping list, much less a book about poetry, that is entirely secular. Strip anything of spirit and there’s nothing left, is the way I see it.
But I am not going to preach or to espouse any particular theology. When I speak of God, for our present purpose, I am referring to the Ideal, the Perfect, the Goal that motivates all growth and change, the Organizing Principle—the opposite of entropy.
What (not to put too fine a point on it) is entropy?**
Entropy is the tendency of things to get messier when left on their own. You first heard about entropy from your parents: “Why are you just sitting there? The lawn’s not going to mow itself.”
Entropy is the tendency of everything to fall apart unless something, some form of energy, is holding it together. Think (but not too hard, because this is not a perfect analogy) of a Popsicle after it’s been out of the freezer for a while.
The inanimate universe leans toward chaos, decay, disorganization, and disintegration. Entropy is, you might say, the natural state of things when energy is not applied to them.
The attributes of God are counterentropic—a word I just made up because I can’t think of a better one. Anti-entropic won’t do. God isn’t against entropy. God is life and order. God is love, and growth, and beauty. It is the way of God and nature to lift things up, and these attributes are manifestations of energy, and they are the reason we are all still here. It is the way of entropy to melt like a Popsicle.
Entropy is not evil. Decay, in fact, is necessary to growth. Think of compost, which is decaying organic matter, and how it literally feeds growing things.
Life = order
A living thing — I’ll use myself, the living thing with which I am best acquainted, as an example—is highly organized at the cellular level. All I have to do consciously is eat, drink, and breathe, really, to exist. It might not be a giddy or intellectually satisfying existence, but the potential is there. When I breathe, my body gets the oxygen it needs to convert food to energy, which keeps my various systems functioning more or less efficiently, which enables me to walk and talk, and from there it’s a short step to giddiness or scholarly pursuits.
Our anatomical systems are programmed upward, toward life and growth. They make new cells and dispose of the old ones, filter the blood, manufacture various proteins, and so forth, and I don’t even have to pay attention. I can kick back and read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the fourth time without having to check even once on whether my pancreas is still doing whatever it is that a pancreas does.
Disease and death = entropy
It is no accident that diseases are called “disorders.” Injuries and illnesses are entropic. Cancer cells, for example, reproduce in a chaotic, unpredictable manner, whereas healthy cells are in balance, new cells replacing old cells as needed. Healing from injuries and illnesses is a process of returning cells to their normal, orderly functions.
When a living thing dies, entropy takes over. I know this because not long ago a couple of rats died under my shower. They did not die where they could be conveniently scooped out by someone, anyone, please, God, other than me. Removing them required a major bathroom overhaul that took several weeks.
Meanwhile, major entropy was occurring at the cellular level within these rats, as their cells ceased to regenerate. They decayed. They rotted. And they did these things no more than three feet from where I brushed my teeth.
I hardly need point out that dead cells are not programmed toward life and growth. They aren’t programmed at all. The programming quit when the life went out of them. They are completely at the mercy of entropy, so they disintegrate. As far as I was concerned, they couldn’t disintegrate fast enough.
The opposing, or perhaps complementary,*** effects of entropy and order take place at every level: microscopically and personally; in your household and your community; globally and universally. The body may run okay on automatic pilot — at the cellular level — but when you move up to the organism level, there’s a lot you have to do to, consciously and intentionally, to keep things from falling apart.
Consider what happens when you fail to “apply energy” to something — from combing your hair or washing the dishes after supper, to doing your homework or going to your job. Parents have to impose order on their children. Car owners have to keep their vehicles maintained. Homeowners have to paint their houses. Gardeners have to water and weed their flower beds.
We expend much of our energy in a race with entropy, maintaining ourselves and our stuff before they descend into chaos. If we don’t do it, or if someone doesn’t do it for us, everything goes to pieces. The car rusts. The grass dies. The wood rots. The porch sags. Our teeth fall out. We flunk out of school. Our kids grow up to be axe murderers with absolutely no table manners.
Psychologically, we are programmed to prefer order and we are cranky when it is lacking.**** The most miserable people I know are those who are constantly running after their lives. “I don’t have time to plan,” they say. “I’m too busy fighting fires.” They don’t buy new car tires until there’s a blowout. They don’t clean the yard until a family of weasels takes up residence behind the garage.
These are not orderly lives. They are continually being snatched from the jaws of entropy. The only organizational principle is urgency. There is little joy in such an existence.
If you are wise, you make conscious decisions about what’s truly necessary and, just as your cells do, you (the organism) develop systems for taking care of necessities so that you can also attend to wants and desires. A planning calendar is such a system. It is a powerful anti-entropy device. I actually own one. I’m not sure, at the moment, where it is. Perhaps the weasels have taken it.
Other obstacles to orderliness
Entropy is not the only thing that interferes with maintaining an orderly existence and indulging your wants, interests, and talents. Other people’s expectations, real or perceived, throw a lot of us off course. The more you are concerned with the opinions of others, the more obligated you feel to do unnecessary things. Your life slips out of your grasp like the Little Gingerbread Boy, and all you can do is to run after it and try to rein it in.
My sister, Pipi Campbell Peterson, is an author and professional organizer who specializes in decluttering—closets, offices, lives—so that her clients can have greater serenity, enjoy more time for the Good Stuff, and find their keys. If you are going to Live Poetically—indeed, if you are going to finish this book—you will probably have to declutter and create some space for it, just as you would if you were taking dance lessons in your basement.
* Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way. William Morris & Co. (New York), 1990.
** Entropy = The physical Universe’s macrocosmic proclivities of becoming locally ever more dissynchronous, asymmetric, diffuse, and multiplyingly expansive. —Buckminster Fuller
*** Order, in the form of growth — and entropy, in the form of decay — are complementary in that they rely on one another.
**** Psychological entropy is “the distribution of energy in the psyche, which tends to seek equilibrium or balance among all the structures of the psyche.” Hall, Calvin S.; Nordby, Vernon J. (1999). A Primer of Jungian Psychology. New York: Meridian.
EFT: The Possibilities Are Acronymical
The “rule” regarding the use of punctuation with (a) acronyms and (b) abbreviations consisting of initials is as follows: If the abbreviation is not an acronym but is pronounceable (as in U.S.A.), each initial should be followed by a period. Most writers disregard this rule. You might read that John Doakes received his BA at Harvard, his MBA at MIT, and his Ph.D. at Stanford. (Quite a guy, that John.)
Per the “rule,” only MBA is correctly rendered in the preceding sentence. If you were to read the sentence when you were extremely fatigued or otherwise addled, your brain might “hear” it as, “John Doakes received his bah at Harvard, his MBA at mitt,…” and so forth. But it’s more likely that your brain would make the necessary adjustments, allowing you to read BA as “B.A.” and MIT as “M.I.T.” With or without punctuation, you would probably not read Ph.D. as “fd.”
Accordingly, the placement or nonplacement of periods in such abbreviations doesn’t matter much, usually. When your eyes see USA, your brain is unlikely to “hear” “OOsa.”
I’ve been reading quite a bit lately, however, about an alternative-healing method called EFT,* which stands for “Emotional Freedom Techniques,” and, I’m not sure whether to pronounce EFT in initials (E-F-T) or as “eft” (a sort of newt, as anyone who does a lot of crossword puzzles can attest).
EFT or E.F.T. sounds too good to be true and probably is, but I have tried to keep an open mind about such things since that management-training class I took in the early 1990s at which I described a woman’s ex-husband’s combover and his house and his two Irish setters without her having told me anything about them.
In any case, inasmuch as proponents of EFT or E.F.T. tout it as a quick and comparatively easy way to banish chronic fatigue and procrastination, I created an EFT or E.F.T. page on my website, consisting of several YouTube videos and some text from the official EFT or E.F.T. manual, by Gary Craig, who originated EFT or E.F.T. You are welcome to visit the page at your leisure.
The EFT or E.F.T. healing method consists mostly of tapping the “meridian points,” as defined in acupuncture, or the chakras, or both, possibly, or maybe some of them are the same, but in any event you won’t want to try EFT or E.F.T. in public unless, perhaps, you are riding a bus and you would rather not have anyone sitting next to you.
If you have tried EFT or E.F.T., or if you plan to, please let me know how well it works for you. Thanks!
* Not to be confused with “electronic funds transfer,” whose abbreviation, EFT, is always pronounced “E-F-T.”
Diana, Philippa, or Nora? Take Your Pick
It was my brother, John—a manly man, who thinks The Gulag Archipelago is light summer reading—who turned me on to Diana Gabaldon. Somewhere in our fifties, John and I discovered that our preferences in music and literature intersected more than we might have thought. His taste runs toward Ray Charles, mine toward Ry Cooder. But we both like bluegrass, mysteries, and historical fiction.
It’s my hunch that Diana Gabaldon caught the reading public’s fancy with the steamy sex in her first novel, Outlander, and then, in succeeding books, pumped up the history and toned down the sex. A little. Claire and Jamie are getting on in years, after all, though Claire’s still vain about her “unruly curls,” even if she pretends not to be, and Jamie’s still built like a redwood, and of course we still have Roger and Brianna’s heat to fan ourselves against, and….
I’m sorry. Are you lost?
A little over ten years ago, John sent me Diana Gabaldon’s first four novels, insisting that I read them in the proper order. I didn’t read novels then. I was writing for the business world, and all my reading dealt with marketplace trends. For recreation, I dipped into books about English-language history, grammar, style, and usage. Outlander remained unread, though John kept nagging. It’s our Scots heritage, he said, that had pulled him in, and his fascination with the idea of time travel.
I always took two weeks off at Christmastime, and everything went to all to hell the Christmas of, I think, ’99, and I desperately needed a diversion, so I picked up Outlander and barely drew a breath until I finished Drums of Autumn, the fourth book in the series, about ten days later. I packed the four paperbacks off to my daughter, and she opened Outlander and then forgot to feed and clothe her children for a couple of months.
I pined for the fifth book, and then the sixth. Most of the English-speaking world is impatient for the promised seventh.
It got so that I could sniff out Gabaldon aficionados, people I casually did business with, knew only by phone or e-mail. I marveled that Diana Gabaldon, who, I believe, has a Ph.D. in marine biology, could write with such fluid, picturesque, assured precision about the eighteenth-century Scottish highlands. I thought that she had spoiled me for other authors… that I would never be able to read anyone else’s novels… that I’d have to go back to reading about corporate culture and profit-sharing.
About four years ago, my daughter, Marian, presented me with a wicked new indulgence—the historical fiction of Philippa Gregory. The book was The Other Boleyn Girl. I devoured it. Philippa Gregory doesn’t do steamy sex in her books, really (with the exception noted a few paragraphs down), although the most erotic passage I’ve ever read in any book is Gregory’s depiction of Mary Boleyn and the commoner William Stafford snuggling, fully clothed, on a deserted beach in France.
Gregory has written five novels about the Tudors. I started reading The Queen’s Fool late one Monday night and called in sick on Tuesday. (A sixth book, The Other Queen, about Mary, Queen of Scots’, imprisonment in England, is due out this fall.)
Whereas Gregory writes about people who actually existed, Gabaldon’s main characters are invented, so the question of historical accuracy is less urgent in Gabaldon’s work. It doesn’t trouble me, particularly, in Gregory’s books. I can read the facts in the encyclopedia, but I can’t become immersed in the inconveniences, the injustices, the excesses, and the intrigues of sixteenth-century British royalty—a microcosm that Gregory presents with such exquisite timing and drama. There is, literally, never a dull moment in Gregory’s prose.
(I tried to read Gregory’s first novel, Wideacre, published in 1987. The “heroine’s” amorality was so repellent, complete with steamy sex involving her own brother, that I couldn’t finish the book. Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber  presents a much more sympathetic but equally selfish heroine, and Winsor is more astute about the plight of independent-minded women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.)
Dare I link Nora Roberts’s name with Gabaldon’s and Gregory’s? Nora Roberts, who has had 124 novels on the New York Times bestseller list? Whose books in print exceed 280 million copies? Who produces a new book more often than I dust?
After my most recent Roberts-fest, the “MacGregors” series, I asked myself, once again, “How does she do it?” How, that is, does she write the same story, over and over and over again, putting her characters into different bodies and different scenic locales (usually by the turbulent sea, Atlantic or Pacific), giving them different names and occupations, but telling essentially the same tale?
She does it beautifully, though I confess I cringe every time she uses disinterested when she means uninterested. Still, I am seldom distracted by careless writing mistakes or poor editing. Her research must be fascinating, and exacting. The men and women who populate her books are very believable cops, boat-builders, U.S. senators, cartoonists, witches, racecar-drivers, innkeepers, sculptors, carpenters, fashion models, certified public accountants, four-star chefs, and horse breeders. None of them, it must be said, is fat or ugly, and if a character in one of her books is short of cash, it’s only temporary.
Boy meets girl, boy is rudely antisocial, girl is fiercely independent, the barriers come down, the clothes come off, someone puts a fly in the ointment, it gets fished out, I’m mixing metaphors, pay no mind, and boy and girl get married, have at least three children, and live happily ever after. If we’re fortunate, as in the case of the MacGregors, we get to read about several generations of lusty young men and women repeating the errors of their elders, toughing it out, proving they can make it on their own, discovering they don’t have to, and, finally, making new grandbabies for The MacGregor—Daniel, the patriarch, who built the castle by the sea—though he claims it’s his beloved Anna, the surgeon, who fusses.
The principals are virtually always caucasian (often of Irish or Scottish descent, though there are French and Comanche strains running through the extended MacGregor clan) and robustly heterosexual, but their close friends might or might not be black, or gay, or both. Roberts writes very comfortably, never coyly, about interracial and gay couples, neither making an issue of “diversity” nor backing away from it.
Her gift, I think, is the ability to pick you up and plop you down in some irresistible setting—an island along the New England or Georgia coastline, a clifftop near Monterey, occasionally a sunset town in Montana—and then surround you with charming people—utterly innocent, thoroughly jaded, and everything in between… and you get to live there for a while, in the beautiful, kaleidoscopic whirlwind she’s painted, and watch people grope their way toward each other… and it’s just lots of fun. Every damn time.
And I learn from them all—these made-up people with genuine humanity—the creations of Gregory, Gabaldon, and Roberts. They inspire me, even if it’s only to have a tidy, well-organized workspace like Cybil Campbell in Roberts’s The Perfect Neighbor. They never let me forget—as engrossing and colorful as their lives and times are, there, on the pages, their affairs so tidy one minute, so messy the next—to live my own life first and peek in on theirs only after my chores are done. Well, except for that “sick day” I spent reading The Queen’s Fool… but I’ve learned my lesson, and it will never happen again… at least not until September….
California Central Coast photo by Paul Lee
A marvelously engrossing read is Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Couldn’t be less like Gabaldon’s approach to time travel. Marian gave me The Time Traveler’s Wife for Christmas a few years ago and asked to borrow it after I was done. When I relinquished it, I begged her to finish it quick because I wanted to reread it. A day or two later she called me. “Are you sure you want it back?” she wanted to know. “How can you DO that to yourself again?”
The F-Word: A User’s Guide
It’s been my observation that the F-word is much more frequently used for emphasis—typically in adverbial form—than in its literal sense, which alludes to sexual intercourse. In some circles, it seems to be the only intensifying modifier its users can call to mind, as in, “That effing chick is effing gorgeous.” Such immoderation weakens the word’s impact—rendering it less effective on those occasions when it is indispensable. I am about to describe one such occasion—substituting the euphemism frog for the F-word itself.
Any word that a speaker uses habitually and indiscriminately quickly loses its power. My piano teacher always said, “That was lovely, dear,” no matter how badly I played, and I soon developed immunity to the word lovely as a compliment. I urge all English-speaking people to avail themselves of the rich, nuanced vocabulary of our language and to save the F-word for Special Situations, such as the one recounted herein.
The crime scene
To visualize this particular Special Situation, it might be helpful for you to know that I live in an old church, as its caretaker. My apartment is partially below ground level and has a separate entrance, though it is also accessible through the boiler room of the church proper. I have lived in the apartment for five years without incident. Attached to the screen door is an ersatz “alarm”—really just a very shrill buzzer that is activated when the switch is on and the door is opened. (There is also a genuine alarm, which I have recently begun setting at night.) Usually, when people open the screen door and hear the buzzer, they retreat. The retreaters, however, are not, typically, in…
Altered states of consciousness
Tuesday, June 3, 3 a.m. Am standing in bedroom of apartment. Am working late, facing manuscript deadline, and have gotten up from computer preparatory to moving load of laundry from washer to dryer, with intention of visiting powder room on the way.
Front door of apartment is wide open, screen door is ineffectually latched. Obnoxious shrieking buzzer sounds. I wait for intruder to retreat in panic or else announce, “Mom, it’s me” (my son lives in house next door to church). Buzzer continues to shriek, son does not announce self, am considering other possibilities as intruder enters bedroom, grips my wrist in unfriendly manner, says, “Okay, where’s the money? I want the money,” as if we had appointment or I owed gambling debt to Cosa Nostra.
Is not son. Is not retreater. Is not disoriented dementia patient seeking late-night snack. Must be dream. No, pain in wrist is genuine. Must be joke. Intruder is wearing odd mask that covers all of head except eyes, though his words are not muffled. He tightens grip on my wrist. Is not joke. Is real deal.
3:03 a.m. Have displayed contents of wallet, purse, in response to repeated demands for money on the part of intruder (hereinafter referred to as “perp”).
Have impression perp is armed, though do not actually see weapon. In retrospect, think of classic Mae West comment: “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?”
Perp glances hastily around, as if expecting to see emerald necklace dangling from bedside lamp, then turns his attention to my person. Mutters something unprintable, tugs at my shorts. I tug back. Tussle ensues. Perp exerts strength. I experience moment of panic, immediately succeeded by fury. Am enraged lioness. Have extreme aversion to being constrained, perhaps originating in early childhood when neighborhood bully, called Carol, twice corners me on way home from school, has one of her thugs hold my arms while she punches me in stomach, pulls down my underwear, laughs and goes away. Sick, pointless.
3:05 a.m. Decide would rather take chance on being shot or stabbed than raped, which would be tedious. Have low tedium tolerance. Extricate self from perp, who makes a few unseemly but largely ineffectual jabs without courtesy of washing hands, which will later necessitate tedious examination of my personal self in search of DNA not my own; also tetanus shot.
3:06 a.m. Notice that perp is unfocused, without clear objective. Asks again where money is. I infer, belatedly, that he is impaired. He is standing between me and bedroom door. I start to push, bellow: “Get the frog out of my house! What the frog are you doing here? You don’t belong here! Get the frog out of here!”
Perp pushes back, but I push harder. Cannot think of fresh, articulate monologue to paraphrase original tirade, so reiterate, “Get the frog out of here,” and so forth— estimated 437 repetitions. Am shrill, enraged broken record.
3:12 a.m. or 5:30 a.m., have no idea. Have pushed perp to screen door. Am about to make final, supreme effort to expel perp, but we both pause to take a breath. Perp looks at me in dismay, announces he is going to get his gun. I express approval of his intention, use left arm to push him against unlatched screen door, swing heavy front door with entire strength of right arm. Perp pushes back, but I have momentum, am not impaired; succeed in closing, locking door.
Run through boiler room to church, knowing alarms will sound. Go to nearest phone, call 911. Much tedium ensues—questioning at “crime scene,” more questioning at police headquarters, being transported to hospital, waiting for specially trained nurses who are on call, undergoing invasive examination, which is, inexplicably, legal. Meanwhile, am not allowed to pee, which, as you will recall, was my intention at 3 a.m. when perp entered premises. Is to my credit, don’t you think, that I did not, at that time, pee in shorts?
9:30 a.m. Transported home by kind, patient police officers. Slept rest of day.
Security measures too lax; should keep heavy door locked, use alarm system.
Am enraged lioness when threatened by lightweight impaired weenie.
Dominant residual emotion: annoyance.
F-word, used forcefully and repeatedly by grandmother of eight, can catch perp off guard.
In sentence “Get the frog out of my house,” “the frog” is adverbial phrase.
Good Old MPUI and Other Merry Pranks
It is no accident that modern information-technology history all but began the day I was born (October 23, 1947). My birth, in fact, coincides with the formation of the Association for Computing Machinery. Which is why I’m sure the Bittorrent Client and Pareto front are part of the Big Con.
Early history: Mistakes are made
As a child, I live, breathe, and eat technology:
1948: The transistor is invented. I discover radio. A Philco. I pull knobs off and gum them.
1949: MIT’s Claude Shannon builds first chess-playing machine. I discover chess pieces — entire drawerful. My experiments yield the following data: The knights are gristly and bitter while the pawns can be swallowed whole. I learn that experimentation sometimes produces intense pain.
1950: Maurice V. Wilkes uses symbolic assembly language on EDSAC. Experimentally, I use language on my dad that replicates model my brother uses with his friends. I hypothesize that my dad, like my brother and his friends, will pee his pants with amusement, but results surpass anything I might have hoped for: My dad washes my brother’s mouth out with soap. I learn that experimentation sometimes produces intense gratification.
1953: Remington-Rand develops high-speed printer for use with Univac. I become highly efficient self-contained printer for use with spelling tests, independent of hoity-toity Remington-Rand, though I do collaborate with Jane Frovick, who sits beside me in back row, on spelling test containing unhypothesized word comb. Based on Univac-type logical algorithm (home = H-O-M-E, tome = T-O-M-E, and so forth), we experimentally print C-O-M-E at high speed on our spelling papers. We learn that logic is inimical to spelling.
1954: I memorize spelling of antidisestablishmentarianism. Univac is still scratching its head over comb.
1955-1956: This period marked by squabbles among large entities such as Burroughs, Sperry-Rand, IBM, and the U.S.A. I am likewise at odds with my brother, a large entity relative to me, over Stan Musial rookie card. In ill-advised midsquabble replication of 1950 language experiment, outcome is again not as predicted: My dad washes my mouth out with soap.
Adolescence to young adulthood: Reactionary period
1959: Computers and ordinary people (which is to say, people who rarely need to calculate guided-missile trajectories) begin to “interface” routinely. Early encounters are not promising. Ordinary people are receptive to computers much as Plains Indians were receptive to Iron Horse. The next few years are notable for…
· Dawn of Era of Verbing, with nouns such as interface appropriated for simultaneous use as verbs.
· Mutual suspicion erupting into overt hostility as ordinary people receive electric bills for $17,009.83 and college students enrolling in “History of the Napoleonic Era” end up in “Marine Biology Practicum” doing shrimp census in Gulf of California.
· Gangs raiding corporate offices, seizing punch cards to Staple, Cut, Fold, Spindle, and Tear.
· Regression to older, less threatening technologies (carbon-paper consumption surges).
1962: At public library, I discover 25-cent photocopier that produces a negative; for another quarter you can photocopy the negative and get a positive. Machine is slow compared to later models. In same amount of time, I could manually copy page twice, in calligraphy.
1963: Through volunteer work, I learn to use Addressograph, Mimeograph, and Ditto machines. I discover with glee that Ditto “masters” are available not only in purple, the official public-school Ditto color, but in red, green, and turquoise. Why were we not told?
1965: Technology and I begin a dizzying convergence. Summer job requires mastery of IBM electric typewriter, Verifax “wet copier,” and Thermo-fax copy machine requiring use of special pink tissue sheets and heavy white paper with faint blue flowers on one side. Late in summer we acquire Xerox machine that prints “Xerox” in tiny letters across the top and bottom of every page.
September: I arrive at Stanford University for my freshman year. I gain instant popularity due to ownership of 1930s-era Royal typewriter that has big, fat pica type, filling page with fewer words than weenie elite type of most other typewriters in dorm.
1968: I work for temp agency, accepting every assignment regardless of skill requirement. Confronted with massive cord switchboard like mutant octopus, I plead temporary amnesia and ask for “a few reminders.” I catch on quickly and adopt officious nasal patois: “One moment, puh-leez; connecting you with your party.”
Technology and I grow up, get down to business
1977: I am in Arizona and new territory, literally and metaphorically. I edit University of Arizona catalog, programmed in SNOBOL, using HTML-like SOS (Son of Sam) text editor. We take turns arriving at office before dawn to avoid “login queue” since all CRTs on campus are “timesharing” on single DEC 10 computer occupying largish red-brick building three blocks north. Every five minutes or so we have to punch a few keys to let CRT know we’re there. Otherwise it will “throw you off.” Sometimes it throws you off anyway, with maniacal chuckle.
We order printout, wait three days, walk to DEC-10 site, pick up printout, walk back. Done periodically to make sure all coding accurate. If we have inserted code <it> as instruction to italicize text, but we omit <eit> at end of specified text, italics go on and on until halted at state border for illegal vegetable transportation inspection.
Our spellchecker is called Mary Lindley, who astutely points out peculiarities in text, such as Special Education course title entered as “Reading and Study Skills for the Dead,” which ordinary spellchecker, not yet invented, would in any case ignore, at sacrifice of much office merriment.
When time to print catalog, we haul tractor-tire-size magnetic tape to printer.
1983: I am in Hutchinson, Kansas, working at dial-up news service designed for farmers. We have TRS-80 Model II computers with up to four floppy disk drives and zero hard drives. If someone runs vacuum cleaner near server, it (server, not vacuum cleaner) reboots, causing total loss of data. Our modem is telephone-receiver cradle transmitting thirty characters per second.
I am computer genius. I converse smoothly about binary code, bits, bytes, and “baud” (modem speed). Computers produce mainly letters and numbers. It is cake to understand how each bit in eight-bit code represents tiny switch that is either ON or OFF and how sequence of ON and OFF switches determines letters or numbers.
We have full-time staff person, pretty Vicki, to instruct owners of TRS-80, Texas Instruments, Sinclair, Commodore, IBM, Atari, Apple II-e, and other computers how to access our database. It is precise configuration; tiny mistake links user’s computer to Interpol, causes international incident.
1992: Am back at University of Arizona. DEC 10 has been converted to student housing, CRTs are in museum with Commodores, Daisy-Wheel printers. New software is suspiciously colorful. What’s with the sinister floating windows? I balk at using mouse.
Recover aplomb, become adept at learning software, even if not easily comprehended in terms of ON and OFF switches. By end of decade emerge as Internet pioneer with own Web site. Breeze through graphic-design, spreadsheet, database classes. Experience bliss of broadband.
May 2000: Leave secure University of Arizona position with desirable benefits to accept big bucks, cushy job, impressive title with dot-com in posh foothills location. My ship has come in.
September 2000: Ship sails away. Am stranded on Gilligan-type island minus Gilligan, Captain, Professor, Jim Backus, Lovey. Some days am Ginger, other days am Mary Ann. Occasionally am Bishop Desmond Tutu, Pointer Sisters. It is as Teddy Roosevelt on San Juan Hill that I see passing ship, fire musket to signal, provoking Navy SEAL mission resulting in rescue.
I age gracefully, I.T. develops dementia
I click “download.” Do I want “Secure Download (US)” or “Secure Download (RO)”? What is “RO”? Rome? Republic of Ontario?
Am advised that “To download from torrent links” I “must download and install a bittorrent client.”
Scales fall from my eyes, clog keyboard. No matter. Is all Big Con. If I bite on “bittorrent client” scam, will get error message: “Access denied. Could not find active alienated download buffer. Repair by finding Pareto front of simple problem using Genetic Algorithms with fitness sharing. Or you could just stick peanuts up your nose. P.S. Your computer has 2,937 registry errors. Hahahahahahaha.”