How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 33.1
Chapter 11: Living Poetically
What Does It Mean to ‘Live Poetically’?
This journal… does for me what prayer must do for the truly religious—sets things in proportion again…. What is interesting, after all, is the making of a self, an act of creation, like any other, that does imply a certain amount of conscious work. Ellen is very much aware of this, I feel. She would agree with Keats about “a vale of soul-making”…. —May Sarton, Kinds of Love
Jean Lall… calls housework “a path of contemplation” and says that if we denigrate the work that is to be done around the house every day, from cooking to doing laundry, we lose our attachment to our immediate world…. [Something as homely as a scrub brush can be] a sacramental object, and when we use this implement with care we are giving something to the soul. In this sense, cleaning the bathroom is a form of therapy because there is a correspondence between the actual room and a certain chamber of the heart. The bathroom that appears in our dreams is both the room in our house and a poetic object that describes a space in the soul. —Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul : A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life
I can’t tell you, item by item, how to live poetically any more than I could write my poetry and call it yours. The only “rule” that I know of for poetic living is practicing the “I-Thou” relationship that Martin Buber wrote about in his 1923 book I and Thou.
I and Thou, Martin Buber’s classic philosophical work, is among the 20th century’s foundational documents of religious ethics. “The close association of the relation to God with the relation to one’s fellow-men … is my most essential concern,” Buber explains in the Afterword…. “One should [never view]… the conversation with God … as something that occurs merely apart from or above the everyday,” Buber explains. “God’s address to man penetrates the events in all our lives and all the events in the world around us, everything biographical and everything historical, and turns it into instruction, into demands for you and me.”
Throughout I and Thou, Buber argues for an ethic that does not use other people (or books, or trees, or God), and does not consider them objects of one’s own personal experience. Instead, Buber writes, we must learn to consider everything around us as “You” speaking to “me,” and requiring a response…. Walter Kaufmann’s definitive 1970 translation contains hundreds of helpful footnotes providing Buber’s own explanations of the book’s most difficult passages. —Michael Joseph Gross, Amazon.com review
In a way, Buber’s book is an elaboration on the “do unto others…” maxim often referred to as the Golden Rule—
As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.
Jesus said, “The point is to not hate and kill each other today, and if you can, to help the forgotten and powerless. Can you write that down, and leave it by the phone?” —Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith
If you can consistently and joyfully practice I-Thou relationships (or the Ethic of Reciprocity), I have nothing more to tell you. You are already gentle with others and gentle with yourself. You never, ever beat yourself up. When you make a mistake, you correct it or, if that’s not possible, you learn from it and go on with your life.
If — and this is more likely — you flounder around like the rest of us, then you might benefit from the modest wisdom I have gained on living joyfully and poetically:
Lighten up! The title of the late Richard Carlson’s 1997 book says it all: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff — and It’s All Small Stuff.
Defy entropy. Have a plan but don’t be a slave to it. Find and practice your dharma, your “righteous path, way of living, and ethical system… largely found within oneself, through contemplation, rather than in the external world.” —ProQuest
Engage your imagination. As Nora Roberts points out in her novel Captivated, “The imagination [is] portable, unbreakable, and extremely malleable.” Be creative. Know that your potential is literally unlimited.
Show up. Be conscious and aware and totally in the moment.
Liberate yourself. Be larger than life. Do what you do with class and panache, beauty and grace. Practice courage. Be brave. Go the distance to become not just a good singer/dancer/accountant/cashier but a great one.
Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, handsome, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some; it is in everyone. And, as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others. —Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles” quoted by Nelson Mandela in his inaugural speech of 10 May 1994
Keep moving. Continually co-create yourself. Let your actions be learned and practiced but not slavishly habitual. Play. Pretend. Always be aware that you have choices. Solve your problems as they arise.
Find your balance — that place between (a) spontaneity and intuition and (b) wisdom and orderliness. Napoleon Hill, in The Law of Success, maintains that the most successful people are those who trust their sixth sense.
Make a list of 100 things you want. We’ll call these your goals. The items on your list can be grand or trivial: a movie you want to see, a new restaurant you want to try, habits you want to form, things you want to do before you die, places you want to visit, people you’d like to meet, desired changes in relationships….
Choose just one thing from your list. It makes absolutely no difference which goal you choose.
Write loosely in prose about, or make a diagram of, the distance between you and the goal and the steps you can take to overcome that distance. Conclude with reaching the goal.
Close your eyes and imagine, but don’t write down, how you will feel when your goal is reached.
Condense your prose into a Spenserian sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee. An example is the following sonnet (1595) by the English poet Edmund Spenser. The metrical pattern is generally iambic pentameter, and it is easier to discern if you understand that, four hundred years ago, many words were pronounced differently, with added syllables. The first line, for example, might have been spoken thus: “Hap-PY [or, more likely, HAP-py, making the line slightly irregular] ye LEAV-es! WHEN those LIL-y HANDS”; and the word derived in line 10 was probably pronounced “de-RIVE-ed.”
Happy ye leaves! when those lily hands, (a)
Which hold my life in their dead doing might, (b)
Shall handle you, and hold in love’s soft bands, (a)
Like captives trembling at the victor’s sight. (b)
And happy lines on which, with starry light, (b)
Those lamping eyes will deign sometimes to look,(c)
And read the sorrows of my dying sprite, (b)
Written with tears in heart’s close bleeding book. (c)
And happy rhymes! bathed in the sacred brook (c)
Of Helicon, whence she derived is, (d)
When ye behold that angel’s blessed look, (c)
My soul’s long lacked food, my heaven’s bliss. (d)
Leaves, lines, and rhymes seek her to please alone, (e)
Whom if ye please, I care for other none. (e)
NOTE: Do not overtly express your feelings of victory or accomplishment in your poem. Let your artistry, and the rhetorical devices you use, do that for you.
- Keep exploring the meditations at www.LifeIsPoetry.net, and continue with your meditation journal.
- First-rate résumés — quick, easy, economical — at resamazing.com
- Publish your “little book” in an easy little way
- Find unique, affordable cards, gifts, and books year-round at Zero Gravity’s Holiday Store. Gift certificates available
- Sample diverse blogs at Alpha Inventions, Condron.us
Homophones are words that sound alike but that have different meanings and origins — poor, pour, and pore, for example. (Depending on where you were raised, you might pronounce these words slightly differently from one another. Poor might sound a bit like POO-er, and the O sound in pore might be more rounded than that in pour.)
In a sentence on studying the Bible, in the book Prayer, Faith, and Healing: Cure Your Body, Heal Your Mind, and Restore Your Soul, the authors—Kenneth Winston Caine and Brian Paul Kaufman—recommend that we “ponder …[the Bible], study it, and really pour over it [emphasis added].”
It’s easy to use the wrong member of a set of homophones because sometimes the incorrect word seems to make more sense than the correct one. I thought for years that a sound bite was a sound byte.
* * *
Publish your “little book” in an easy little way
Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.
How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 2. Preface (part 2)
April 1991. I want to be anywhere but indoors. A light rain has rinsed the dust off the creosote bushes, leaving that fresh, ephemeral scent of just-washed desert foliage that you absolutely cannot describe but that makes you feel earthy somehow. By dusk, the whole world smells of Mock-orange in bloom. Nothing can compete — rose or jasmine, diesel fumes, steaks cooking over mesquite — nothing brings on spring fever like the Mock-orange at the height of its blooming glory.
Tonight I must forgo my small luxuries: watching the sun set over the mountains, imbibing Mock-orange fragrance and a margarita on the rocks with a solid inch of salt. I have a class to go to. Nor am I drawn to this class by a Hunger for Learning but rather by the need to fulfill a continuing-ed requirement.
I take a last, longing look at the Tucson Mountains to the west — always purple and mysterious when the sun sets, as if somewhere in those backlit hills the Elves’ Masquerade is about to start and you’re invited, if you can find the spot — before I lock my car and enter the windowless building, following the unmistakable pre-evening-class buzz of desultory conversation and languid laughter.
There isn’t a soul I recognize in the large, drab room, which is packed to capacity with bodies steaming slightly from the unseasonably humid warmth of the April night. Tables and chairs are nowhere to be seen, so when the instructor calls us to attention we just plop down on the carpeted floor.
The instructor, whose name is Sheila, is blond, young, compact, and soft-spoken. Her confident, intelligent energy captures my attention as she works her way back to my corner of the room handing out single sheets of paper.
In the years to come I will wish I had kept that paper, though it contains only four or five lines of instructions for our first “exercise.” With little introduction and no fanfare, Sheila explains what we are to do, summarizing the written instructions.
First, we have to “find a partner — someone you’ve never met before tonight.” I am chatting with a woman named Pat, and we give each other that raised-eyebrow “might as well” look that seals our common destiny for the next hour or so.
Normally the words “find a partner” unleash all my latent insecurities. I am back in third-grade gym class trying to be invisible rather than unchosen. To this day I am good-humored and gregarious until an authority figure says “find a partner.” Instantly my hair turns into hideous, writhing spines, the freckles on my nose into warts. My breath is redolent with every onion I have ever eaten. Small spots on my clothes spread and merge into one giant puke stain. Suddenly I need something out of my purse — something small and hard to find, maybe a Chiclet, a nitroglycerine tablet, a microdot — something buried so deep I have to submerge my head and torso to find it.
Tonight I have dodged the find-a-partner bullet. I can relax. Which happens to be the next instruction — to relax, via a mercifully no-nonsense meditation led by Sheila. I’ve undergone guided meditations so drawn out it would have been more efficient to go to the actual ocean and be calmed by the lapping of the actual waves. These exercises were generally led by women with low, crooning, hypnotic voices.
Sheila is no crooner. Her voice doesn’t go all soft and mystical (like Galadriel’s, you know, in The Lord of the Rings, when she is mesmerized by the One Ring that Frodo carries, right before she lights up like Las Vegas and morphs into Oz-the-Great-and-Terrible on steroids). Sheila suggests, in her cheery everyday voice, that we lean back and get comfortable, before she remembers that we are sitting on the floor with nothing to lean back on.
“Okay,” she amends, “just get as comfortable as you can. Relax your shoulders.” We do a few neck stretches, close our eyes, breathe deeply and rhythmically for about thirty seconds, and ultimately achieve a state of relaxation that is about what you’d expect in a room full of sweaty strangers sitting on the floor in business attire.
Seven words with the force of a Light Saber
It is time to begin the exercise. Here’s what’s supposed to happen: One of us (Student A) is to hold in her mind an image of a person she knows. My partner, Pat, has volunteered to be Student A. She is allowed to tell me only three things about “her person”: gender, age, and location. Pat’s person is a forty-two-year-old man in Tucson.
My job (as Student B) is to describe that person — through, I am guessing, some kind of mystical connection Pat and I have formed by sitting a few inches apart and being in a receptive state of deep relaxation. I am supposed to divine his appearance, his surroundings, his appurtenances, whatever occurs to me.
“You’ll feel like you’re making it up,” Sheila cautions. “Don’t wait for a flash of inspiration. Just say whatever comes into your mind. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You’ll be wrong. You’ll get over it.”
You’ll feel like you’re making it up. Seven words with the force of a Light Saber. One sentence to validate a lifetime of intuition.
The man with two red dogs
According to the rules, Pat can ask me only “neutral” questions (“Where is he standing?” “What do you see behind him?” “Is there anything next to him? What is it?”) and affirm or negate my statements. She can’t say stuff like “No, but that’s close” or “You’re getting warmer.” She can’t ask leading questions, either (“So, is he sitting in the white gazebo, or is he cleaning out the garage?”).
I take a deep breath, try to locate my Third Eye, feel a small flutter of anxiety, and then plunge in… and nail it, right from the get-go. Pat’s “forty-two-year-old man in Tucson” is unusually fair-skinned, I announce with authority, about five-foot-ten, has very dark hair but not much of it; he is bald on top, but not on the sides or in back. A thin strip of shiny baldness is covered with, oh, nine or ten strands of dark hair — a comb-over, but a tasteful one as comb-overs go.
I glance at Pat for verification, but I don’t really need it; I can see the guy. She asks where he is, what his surroundings are. I tell her that he is standing in front of a house in the foothills, a long, low, dark-green house that faces north toward the Catalina Mountains. He is beside the front door, a few feet from a curved gravel driveway lined with barrel cacti. He looks serious and intense — like a person who spends most of his time solving important equations in order to pinpoint the precise moment of the Big Bang. I chatter on, now almost oblivious to Pat until, out of the corner of my eye, I see that her face has gone three or four shades paler, a common side effect of forgetting to breathe.
“Do you see anything else?” she whispers.
“Dogs,” I answer promptly. “Two dogs. Two red dogs.”
I have unerringly and meticulously described Pat’s ex-husband, his hair, his house, his two Irish setters, even his profession. It occurs to me that she might be knocking on his door later that evening, asking if she can count the hairs in his comb-over.
The room goes from quiet to unruly as if someone has rung the dismissal bell. Everybody starts talking at once in giddy, high-pitched voices that remind me of the girls’ bathroom at Central High School on the day of the prom.
Gone are the glazed eyes, the jaded expressions and work-weary faces I saw when I entered the class. Now the room is filled with childlike awe and a hundred stories to tell, each more astonishing than the one before. A man called Biff has apparently decided he’s some kind of sorcerer. As Student B, he explains, he described his partner’s (Student A’s) father’s Indiana farmhouse so precisely that he “saw” the weathered pine step—a replacement that never got painted—on the white stairway leading from the back porch to the “truck garden.”
The stories keep coming. Sheila is impressed, in her low-key way, but hardly overwhelmed, as the rest of us are. Apparently this stuff happens all the time in her classes.
“You’re not ‘mind-reading,’” she tells us. “You’ve just dipped your toes into what is sometimes called ‘shared consciousness.’ The only purpose of this exercise is for you to see how much power you have that you didn’t know you had.” Then she starts handing out a syllabus about the difference between Management and Leadership.
Rats. I have been hoping for more adventures in the paranormal. We all have. If Sheila were to announce, “Okay, now we’re going to levitate naked,” everybody would say, “Oh, boy! Yeah, let’s levitate,” and start throwing off their business attire.
Someone, probably being whimsical but also not wanting the magic to end, starts to sing: “I am woman, hear me roar / In numbers too big to ignore…” and the rest of the class joins in, the men as heartily as the women.
When amazing things happen in my life, the more time passes the more unreal they seem, until I wonder if I dreamed them. Like when I escorted Alexander Kerensky (who overthrew Czar Nicholas in 1917) from his residence across the street to my college dorm, holding my umbrella over his head so he wouldn’t get soaked; like when I learned that the man sitting next to me at dinner was the composer Aaron Copland and I tried to sing the soprano part to his song “Las Agachadas” with a mouth full of broccoli; like when I shared an elevator with Margaret Truman, or when, early in Ravi Shankar’s career, I went to see him “in concert” in a dorm lounge with about ten other people…. I’ll be telling one of those stories and I’ll think, “Did I make that up?”
But I’ve never for a minute doubted what happened in that classroom full of novice swimmers in the Great Sea of Cosmic Awareness — that was the genuine article. That was the real deal.
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?”
All photos in this post show my grandson Pete and fellow Scouts and leaders (including Pete’s dad, Paul).
Surviving the Storm
Who would have dreamed, back in the fresh-faced fifties, when moms wore aprons at home and put on hats and gloves to go shopping… when boys named after their dads were called “Skip” or “Bud”… when families went for a drive in the country to escape the city heat on Sunday afternoons, maybe dining on cold chicken and potato salad at a shaded roadside picnic table… who would have guessed, back then, that the compact little self-explanatory phrase “Boy Scout” would someday take on a pejorative tinge? Overheard: “He’s such a Boy Scout!” Yep, he’s a lost cause, all right. (The feminine equivalent is, “She’s such a Pollyanna!”)
I remember my brother, John, eagerly packing for the National Jamboree at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. He would have been about 12 at the time. My mom had been a den mother, Dad was the assistant scoutmaster, and they encouraged but never pressured John in his Scouting endeavors. It was not my parents’ way to coerce, so when, in the imprudence that is puberty, John and his friends tossed out their Boys’ Life magazines and started hiding Playboy under their beds—where their nosy little sisters would inevitably find them and go running to Mom—my parents were philosophical, just as they were when my sister quit Girl Scouts and I abandoned the Camp Fire Girls.
It wasn’t until much later—just recently, in fact—that I learned that some of the hippest guys I knew in high school were closet Eagle Scouts. It was the cynical sixties, and anything wholesome was suspect. Being a Boy Scout was the youthful equivalent of belonging to the John Birch Society, I guess.
In the intervening decades, Scouting has survived a storm of hostile scrutiny—some of it perhaps justified, most of it just plain ignorant. Scouting has been labeled sexist, racist, homophobic, fascist, or simply irrelevant. I wonder if Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder has provoked second thoughts about the charge, at least, of irrelevance.
My oldest grandson, Pete, became an Eagle Scout at age 16 last year in a moving ceremony attended by fellow Scouts and adult leaders, as well as family and friends, of course. A few years earlier, on a crisp fall day, I had driven him about forty miles to a weekend campout at one of the other kids’ uncle’s farm, a picturesque spot in the Loess Hills that line the Missouri River on the east. When we arrived, there was no one in sight. Then we heard shouts: “Pete! Up here!” Eight or ten boys were exploring a wooded ridge some fifty feet above where we were standing. After a quick “Thanks, Grandma,” Pete was off like a shot, aiming for the steep path that led to the pinnacle.
They’d be pitching their own tents that evening, building their own fire, cooking their own food, nestling into their sleeping bags when the temperature dropped into the twenties. Where, except in Scouting, do kids experience that stuff? What, I wondered, would he be doing that sunny Saturday if he weren’t soaking up the clean country air (lightly laced, it must be said, with the aroma of livestock leavings)? I did my share of camping, girl-style, when I was a kid, but I also watched a lot of Circus Boy reruns and old Shirley Temple movies on Saturdays.
Last week, on June 12, a tornado killed four Boy Scouts at Little Sioux Scout Ranch, also in Iowa’s Loess Hills but a couple of hours north of the farm where Pete had camped a few years back. By all accounts, the eighty-nine Scouts who survived, and their leaders, reacted heroically.
Associated Press writer Timberly Ross reported that the Scouts helped “administer first aid and search for victims buried in their flattened campsite….” Thirteen-year-old Ethan Hession “said the Scouts’ first-aid training immediately compelled them to act.”
“We knew that we need to place tourniquets on wounds that were bleeding too much. We knew we needed to apply pressure and gauze. We had first-aid kits, we had everything,” he said.
Ethan said one staff member took off his shirt and put it on someone who was bleeding to apply pressure and gauze. Other scouts started digging people out of the rubble, he said.
I don’t know about you, but if I’m ever in the path of a tornado, I’d like to be surrounded by people whose motto is “Be Prepared.”
And if I’m ever in the presence of someone who demeans the principles and practices of Scouting, I hope I have the presence of mind to reply, “Remember Little Sioux.”
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.