25 November 2001

"We must grant the artist his subject, his idea,
his donnée: our criticism is applied only to what
he makes of it. [...] If we pretend to respect
the artist at all, we must allow him his freedom
of choice, in the face, in particular cases, of
innumerable presumptions that the choice will not
fructify.  Art derives a considerable part of its
beneficial exercise from flying in the face of
  - Henry James, The Art of Fiction

I have been silent nearly all month. Why, you ask? Because I have too many ideas, most of them courtesy of my few loyal readers and friends, and I found myself unable to finely focus myself enough to write anything. Most disconcerting, I assure you.

My readers gratify me by their generous praise of these little thoughts of mine, and they urge me onward in my quest for bringing the odd, the unusual, the eccentric, and the eclectic into the light. These people tell me I'm a clever person, which I wish I could accept wholly as true, and independent of their affection for me.

It is these same generous, kind souls who offered me the surfeit of ideas that rendered me mute for nearly three whole weeks. Oh. Right. More than three whole weeks. One sent me a copy of an email chain letter with a comment, "Look at this. Can you believe anyone is dumb enough to fall for this load of old baloney?" The chain letter contained a blessing and a curse. Ostensibly, you get the blessing if you send the whole thing forward to the same number of people as you are years old, and the curse if three calendar days pass without sending it anywhere. My friend's indignation was so great, I noted he copied forty-two of his closest friends -- me included -- in the "send to:" field. That's a lot of indignation. Odd, too, how the number of recipients corresponded exactly to his age. I'd have to say that on balance, yes, I do believe that some people are dumb enough to fall for the "load of old baloney," all protest to the contrary.

I considered writing about this exchange, but then asked myself if a chain email letter, first cousin to the more ubiquitous and iniquitous "spam," was worthy of time and brain cells. I decided it wasn't. Truly, I'm nervous about even writing this much about the episode -- I subscribe to the belief that whatever I happen to focus my attention upon, arrives in great quantity, and without delay. I hope I've not already sent a wrong message out to the Universe.

Another friend, rabidly feminist ever since her ex-husband telephoned from a Tahitian resort to tell her he'd run off with his secretary, the beauteous bimbo Tiffany Crystal, and as a result wouldn't be available to escort her to the LaLeche Nipple Ring meeting, wrote to encourage me to tee off on extradition treaties, philandering executives, and girls whose names sound like department store goods. I am extremely, profoundly sympathetic to my friend's plight, and I fully understand her outrage. However, how does adding my voice to her fully-justified ferocity accomplish anything? I doubt it does, as I have no experience whatsoever with any of the things she wants me to write about.

There are others who offered me topics this month. This includes my beloved, who thought it would be a great idea for me to simply pop in the names of our family members into my text, without warning or reason. This premise strikes my spouse as hilariously funny. "Just think, R.B. You could say, 'According to Dr. Medulla,' and everyone would scratch their heads and wonder, 'who the heck is this Medulla character?' They'll go crazy trying to figure it out, and we'd be the only ones to know it's me. That's funny, isn't it?"

Sure. This would really endear me to my readers. Arcane, obscure references to people they never heard of, talking about bits and snippets of news that mean nothing at all to them. A real laugh riot, that idea, bound to be a real crowd pleaser.

To tell the truth, I don't always understand what motivates my writing. Mostly, I just watch the world in motion around me. Now and again, a thought grates, like sand in an oyster. Over time, layers of words wrap themselves around the thought, until what I always hope will be a pearl pops out. When this happens, I put it on the page in the same way young girls used to add single pearls to necklaces. I try to match for color, consistency, and quality, but beyond this, I'm at the mercy of the sand and my own nacreous accretions.

If you ever read something you like here, I assure you, it's dumb luck, more than anything deliberate on my part. But do keep on reading. I need the sand.

Excuse me. Dr. Medulla informs me I must add this pearl to my string.


01 November 2001

“Margaret, are you grieving
   Over Goldengrove unleaving?
   Leaves, like the things of man, you
   With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?”
     - Gerard Manley Hopkins, 
       Spring and Fall: To a Young Child

Autumn snuck up on me this year. Like everyone else in the nation, I was so stunned by the events of mid-September and their repercussions, I did not notice the brilliant colors around me until this week, and it’s almost too late. Most of the trees are bare now, except for the few straggling oaks and hickories upon which large, dark green leaves still cling to the branches, stubborn reminders of a summer’s glory.

New England is rightfully famous for the beauty of the hills and towns when the autumn changes occur. Everywhere our eyes turn, we take in a rioting crimson, orange, yellow, and brown cascade punctuating the crisp, cool air. The ground crackles as we trod upon the thick layering of stiff leaves underfoot. Every step announces our presence to the world, echoing through empty woods and streets. It’s a magical time of year, when life and death meet briefly to celebrate the transition.

I think I did not notice the changing colors because I have had more than enough death this year, and not nearly enough life. My eyes, like those of nearly everyone I know, have been downcast and filled with tears. I’ve been looking at the world through this saline wall of water, and as a result, everything’s been ill-defined, slightly out of focus.

But this past week, my beloved provided me with the corrective lens I needed to recover my equilibrium. “It’s time to clean up the yard, R.B. Do you want to rake, or blow?” I looked up at the denuded trees, of which there are more than thirty on our property, and realized I’d missed the blaze of October light through the leaves. This was my last chance. I chose the leaf blower.

For nearly six hours of two warm, sunny afternoons, I went to work with the electric leaf blower. Step by step, I blew the fallen leaves forward across the lawn toward the street, into two enormous piles for the lawn service folks to come haul away. I inched my way forward, the leaves whirling and flying around me on their crazy flight to the street and the compacter. The flashing gold, yellow, and crimson felt at times like a column of fire enveloping me, and at other times like a rain of coins falling from the heavens.

When we finished our work, the yard was clear, the piles were deep, and my spirits were high. My heart was beating hard, and not just from the exercise. We put away our tools, closed the garage, and went indoors to supper and sleep. All night, I dreamed I was ten years old and jumping over and over into the deep, soft, inviting warmth of those crackling leaves, laughing and happy. The lawn service came early. When I awoke, I rushed out the front door in my bathrobe. All the leaves were gone. The street was bare, the yard clear. Autumn was over.

Excuse me. I have to go wax my cross-country skis. I don’t intend to miss winter, too.


26 October 2001

"All men desire to be immortal."
   - Theodore Parker, A Sermon on the Immortal Life

We are lost in our dreams, gone to places only we know exist. I think I might have been in Lyons, or St. Malo, last night. There were tall, imposing battlements of dark, heavy stone looming around us. I wasn't alone. I had a brother who'd been recently released from a sanitarium; he was suspected of being given to violent and uncontrollable fits of temper. A murder was committed. My job was to protect my brother by getting rid of the evidence. We were up on the Quai, and I had to contrive some way to dispose of any evidence which might incriminate him, and at the same time, ensure I did not incriminate myself. He had a girlfriend -- an insipid, bourgeois little girl who was determined to marry him, no matter what. He was edgy while she was around, becoming more and more agitated by her endless stream of inanities, until finally, in a seething fury, he grabbed her, drew her close, and throttled her. He was purple with the effort, and all the while, he was muttering, "I love you. I'll show you. I love you. I'll show you."

I caught him just before it was too late, and he released his hold on her neck. She opened her eyes and mouth wide, and although she looked like she was screaming, no sound came from her. She ran away from us, heading into some dark alleyway, where she thought we couldn't see her. She was wrong. After my brother returned to normal, he went to fetch her. He found her lying huddled and shivering on a cotton pallet in the shadows. He sat with her, and even though she still seemed very frightened by him, she let him put his arms around her and draw her close to his chest. She quickly returned to mouthing her simpering stupidness at my brother, who seemed to enjoy it. I was finally so sickened by them, and by the girl's blandishments, I walked away.

The detectives we’d worried about soon arrived. I had to explain my whereabouts and my actions over the preceding day -- including the reasons for them. When they asked, "Why did you bring a wetsuit with you?" I faltered, but recovered myself sufficiently to answer, "I needed to retrieve my watch. I dropped it into the water earlier, and had to dive after it." As ridiculous as this explanation sounded, it seemed to satisfy the detectives, and they left.

Next, a man joined me on top of the parapet and asked me if I'd eaten. I noticed I had fresh blood on my leg and foot. I knew the blood was not my own, but I didn't understand his question. "How old are you?" he asked. I told him I was much older than perhaps he thought from just looking at me. He invited me to join him.

We walked along the Quai in the dark until we spotted a solitary person. My companion attacked the man, and after bringing him to the ground, invited me to partake in his meal. I hesitantly knelt, but was soon transported with pleasure by the richness and the biting tang of the victim's blood. My normal squeamishness about gore was gone, and I felt silly for having denied myself what was rightfully mine for so long.

After eating, we walked away contented -- no traces of the activity were in evidence. I felt wonderful, but also confused. I asked, "How can this be? How could I not have known this about myself before now?"

My companion just laughed, and said, "You've known me for many, many years. Do I look any different from the way I did the day you met me?" When I admitted that he didn't seem to have aged, he said, "That’s because years and generations don't mean the same thing to us as to the others. You'll have to get used to it. Governments rise and fall, men are born and die, but we continue, and nobody is the wiser for it."

I asked if there were others like us. He told me there were, but except for very rare occasions, we tended to be solitary in our pursuits and our hunting. This was partly due to the fact we didn't always remember others like us existed. My companion and I arrived at a fancy restaurant, where the maitre d'hotel, a tall, darkly elegant, smiling man, admitted us. My companion asked him, "How old are you?" The dark man answered, "I'm nearly eighty, sir."

I was astonished. The man appeared to be strong, vigorous, and certainly no older than in his mid-thirties. He said, "I’m not so old. My father is the sommelier, over there." At a nearby table, another attractive smiling man was offering a newly uncorked bottle to a seated couple. "He's at least twice my age.” The sommelier apeared even younger than his son. I realized that chronological age can be extremely deceptive -- and that unless you ask the question, you can't know the truth.

Much later, we were in the countryside, near an old chateau. A woman had just been given the deed to the place, and although she was excited about owning it, she was overwhelmed. The heiress, a large, shapely woman, was hugging herself tightly, humming a tuneless song. Her companion, a thin, dour-faced woman, was peering about furtively, calculating the cost of the furniture. The big woman was tired, and said, "I need to sleep." The thin woman asked her where she intended to stay. The big woman said, "Why, right here, of course."

At this, the thin woman launched off on a tirade, ending her screed by asking if the other had ever been unfaithful to her. The heiress replied she hadn't, whereupon the thin woman exclaimed, "Well I have, and you never will!"

I thought this was cruel of her, but the large woman took it in her stride, saying, "Maybe, but this is my house, my room, and I'm the one writing the books, so get out, and wake me in a few hours."

I laughed as my ageless companion and I exited the room, leaving the women to their petty battles. I later learned the heiress’ book was finished. It was a treacly, overdone, overwrought potboiler, filled with gothic images, the prose too sweet by half. When I heard this, I knew they were vampires, too.

And the next thing I knew, I was kissed into consciousness, my beloved’s warm lips on my sleeping brow. As I opened my eyes, all I could see were lips and teeth.

Excuse me. I'm off to find myself some warm tomato juice.


15 October 2001

"There is no sin except stupidity."
   - Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde, The Critic as Artist

Oscar Wilde declared the above more than one hundred years ago, and we apparently still agree wholeheartedly with him. I offer you evidence. As of last week in the online catalog for our Public Library Network, which serves 62 area communities, there are 1,018 occurrences of "for Dummies" in the titles of books, sound recordings, and videotapes. There were also 937 occurrences of "for Beginners." I looked up "for Idiots," and found another 378 items.

Frankly, after looking through the output of my search, I came away feeling, well, insulted -- the implication in every title being that the reader needs hand-holding in some way or another, being a dummy, idiot, or beginner. There was a time, not so very long ago, when we apprenticed ourselves out to experts, in the hopes we would benefit from their coaching and mentoring as we learned from them. There was a gentleness to the relationship, with the expected outcome being a passing on of whatever little torch of knowledge there was to offer. No longer. The personal touch has been replaced by a book, and the gentleness has been replaced with a bold insult. If you read the book, then you are by your own definition a "dummy," a "beginner," or an "idiot."

I was also more than a little unnerved, thinking about all the experts at their work, happily cranking out tomes dedicated to casting aspersions on their readers' basic intelligence. The range of these books, every one of them a step-by-step guide for accomplishing something, is just astonishing. I can literally go from cradle to grave, every contingency of my life covered by one of the topics.

Granted, the bulk of the titles are about operating systems, computer applications, and networking programs. Interactive Data Group (IDG) jumped on the bandwagon in a big way several years ago, when it realized there was a lucrative and expanding aftermarket for instruction and user manuals that went beyond the system provider's often meager and inadequate efforts. Titles have been published for every conceivable program, application, configuration, and technique ever dreamed by anyone. 

You need to know how to assemble a personal computer? Simple, with "Building a PC for dummies," which is so popular, it's now in its second edition. If you're an Apple aficionado, you might want to have a look at "MAC OS X for dummies," new this year. The titles drill down to extraordinary levels of precision, too, detailing not only the system and the program or concept, but the version to which it applies. Witness "Framemaker 5.5.6 for dummies," "QuarkXPress 3.3 for dummies," and "HomeSite 4.5 for dummies." I admit, a few of the titles are frankly funny with unintended humor built in them -- "Ebay for dummies," "America Online for dummies" (in its 7th edition), and "Researching online for dummies." I read the last one, wondering why anybody would be interested in tracking down dummies online, when it's probably possible to walk down one's own street and have trouble not tripping over one. Draw your own conclusions.

Having spent most of my adult life trying to explain software operation to the world, I can accept that people who are intimidated by computer technology might have such low self-esteem they think routinely think of themselves as "dummies," when it comes to the computer. However, are they so conditioned to this mindset they must now think of themselves negatively in other areas of their lives, too?

Would you like to think the job applicant sitting opposite you was readied for the interview through studying "Resumes for dummies," and "Job Interviews for dummies?" Or that you've left your $30,000 automobile in the hands of somebody who's just finished reading "Auto Repair for dummies?" There were books about gardening, home improvement, health and fitness, sports, history, philosophy, science, education, pets, self-improvement, sex and love, travel, religion, and psychology. Pick a subject, any subject, and there's a guidebook waiting on the shelves to instruct you.

I expanded my search for ever more pejorative terms, such as dopes, dolts, dullards, nincompoops, ninnies, and nitwits. Mercifully, no records were retrieved. Yet.

I do miss the old days, but there's not much I can do to bring them back.

Excuse me. I have to get back to my reading. It's a thin volume, titled "Coaching and Mentoring for Dummies." Who knows, maybe I'll learn something.


11 October 2001

"Go right on and listen as thou goest."
   - Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, canto III, V, l.45

Hearing and religiosity seem to be shaping themselves up as a theme today. My beloved came to me earlier to announce that Rush Limbaugh, that pompous, arrogant windbag who has for many years been espousing his conservative and usually intolerant views on the public airwaves, has "gone deaf."
Limbaugh is famous, or should I say infamous, for his roaring diatribes against all sorts of things -- the man has always had the habit of shouting down and ridiculing those who dare attempt to voice opinions or ideas counter to his own. Limbaugh has had plenty to roar at us over the years about everything from the daily operations of the federal government, to what rights, if any, a woman may have to the functioning of her own body.

I'll probably be struck down for saying it, but I find it deliciously ironic that the most overbearing talker who refused to ever listen, now cannot hear a thing anyone says, no matter how much he desires it. The ability to hear has been lost, and doctors aren't exactly sure why. I have to tell you, it feels to me as if just this once, divine justice has intervened directly in the world, and justice has been dispensed. I do love it when the proud are fallen.

The whole thing reminds me of something I'd read right out of the Old Testament. Think about it.

And the Lord sayeth, "Rush, wilt thou cease thy roaring words for a time, to hear the will of thy Maker?" Whereupon Rush did refuse to submit to the Lord's will. He raised his arm and shook his fist to the very heavens and sayeth unto the Lord, "Nay, Lord. I have no need to stem the flow of words from my mouth, for they are sweet unto the ears of men, and Thou knowest full well my words are to them the same as Thy words. Thou hast bid me to make Thy words known unto the farthest reaches, therefore in no wise shall I obey Thee!"

And upon hearing this defiance, the Lord waxed wroth, and did say again to Rush, "Man, thou art too proud for thine own good! Hast thou forgotten that I have also given My words to all men, that they may speak with one another, and not only unto thee? As long as thou makest such a mighty din, thou drowndest out the words of all other men, and take not what they say unto you into your heart. This pleaseth me not, and if thou wilt not desist, I shall rebuke thee mightily for thy disobedience."

Rush said to the Lord, "I care not that Thou should withhold Thy blessing, Lord. What is such a blessing to me? Am I not powerful among men, and is not my voice the voice all men now hear and obey? Do not all men harken to my words and reply in kind? Nay, Lord, I will speak, and men shall praise my words, raising the cry of "Ditto!" to the heavens, and I shall be exalted among men!"

The Lord's wrath was great, and was visited upon Rush. The Lord said, "This shall be the last thing I say to thee, after which I shall stop thy ears. A man who is too proud to listen deserveth not to hear -- thou shalt from this day forth be deaf to all voices, including thy own. Even unto the end of thy days, thou shalt have the remembrance of what I say to thee now as thy ears become as stones."

Then did Rush understand too late the Lord's power over him, for he could no longer hear the bird in the tree, nor the music in the air, nor even the questions in men's voices. For the remainder of his days, Rush walked the earth in silence, the echo of the Lord's final words to him heavy upon his heart. "Rush Limbaugh, thou art a big, fat idiot."

So sayeth the Lord, and so it is.

Excuse me. I have to go hide from lightning bolts.


06 October 2001

All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at
the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery.
Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like
a long bout of some painful illness. One would never
undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some
demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.
   - G. Orwell

I was recently reading a book about writing, a collection of essays by famous US writers, aimed at readers who are--or want to be--writers themselves. The essays revealed the truths and frailties of the men and women who tell stories and explore the human condition through their words for a living. Each writer contributed to the patchwork of the collection one aspect of what being a writer is all about.

When I finished the book, I sat thinking about what I’d read. Why do I write? I think it’s time I answered that question.

I write because I want room to make up my mind before I speak out on subjects. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten by future generations. I write because I can touch concepts with written words in a way I can’t approximate with spoken words. I write to express and explore my emotions. I write to listen with my heart to what people in the world are saying. I write to keep track of my victories. I write to expunge my losses. I write to purge my shame. I write to explore my boundaries. I write to expand my imagination. I write to remember, and I write to forget. I write to change history, and to influence the future. I write to discharge negative energy and feelings. I write because I hate being under anyone’s control. I write because it makes me feel honest. I write to share laughter. I write when I am overcome by sorrow. I write when I refuse to to quarrel. I write from a place deep inside myself that nobody but me knows about. I write when I feel reality rock and dissolve around me. I write to capture people on the page. I write to capture ideas before they vanish. I write to inspire emotions in my readers. I write to offer images and dreams to the world. I write to concretize fantasies. I write to validate my dreams. I write to relive past glories. I write because playing with words amuses me. I write to extend my reach beyond my grasp. I write to teach myself afresh all the lessons I tend to forget. I write when nobody seems willing to listen to what I have to say. I write as a way of keeping track of myself. I write by accident, when words find me. I write to celebrate my life. I write when I have a story to tell. I write when the world fills me with love, and I write when it fills me with rage. I write because I feel I must or I shall go mad. I write when I am humbled. I write when I am filled with pride. I write when I am filled with sin. I write when blessings reach me. I write in spite of the threat of exposure and ridicule. I write because my heart is open and pouring onto the page. I write because there is nothing else in the world I would rather do.

And if that’s not reason enough, I write in order to be a better writer.

Excuse me. I have to get back to my writing.


01 October 2001

All the world loves a clown.
   - Cole Porter

I am not a clown. 
See the clowns? They run Nortel. 
I am a mirror. 
   - Pseudo-haiku about Nate, now unemployed

I was out browsing the other day, and found a news item on a well-known dot-com "dead pool" site that actually made me laugh out loud, no mean feat these days. I don't think the situation is particularly funny, or the people in the situation, but the combination is made for what I felt was irresistible humor. I needed the laugh.

The item reported on yet another technology company falling apart at the seams, finding itself financially overextended and in the terrible position of having to confront several employees with loss of employment. The numbers were reviewed, the decisions were made, the date was set, and the paperwork prepared. Everything was going to be orderly, bloodless, and swift, when the Human Resources drone delivered the axe blow to the hapless victim of a faltering economy and questionable management practices.

That was the plan. The reality turned into something quite different. One young man, well connected into the company grapevine, knew he was going to receive a summons to the Human Resources processing center, and decided to turn the event into a three-ring circus.


He showed up on the final morning wearing a full clown suit, hat, and shoes, and greasepaint makeup. He was indeed summoned to the Human Resources offices, where he sat in front of the clerk assigned the task of processing him through the layoff, a risible reminder of the absurdity of the situation. Somebody was able to get a digital photograph of him during the exit interview. He's sitting opposite the HR representative, hunched forward in his chair, a bright blue plastic water pistol on the table next to the little pile of forms he had to sign, the frown on his face belied by the rubber nose and the bright colored, smeary red smile painted on his face. There is another photograph available of the clown and his friends out at the local watering hole after the termination. The clown nose is gone, but the frown remains. He grimly stares out at the lens, one hand holding a martini, the other uplifted in a one-finger salute to the world. He is surrounded by other victims of the layoff, who don't seem to be taking much notice of him.

Everyone in the photograph except the clown is smiling.

On the web site where I encountered these photos, there is a forum where people may post opinions about the stories they read. The feeling toward the clown and his actions was overwhelmingly positive, with responses varying from "this guy ROCKS," to "I should have done this when I got laid off!" There were even a few job offers posted. People were drawn to the clown, even not knowing his work ethic, the position he'd held, or his qualifications. What they knew was they wanted to be in his proximity.

That's not surprising. Clowns are anarchists, subversives, crazies. They poke fun at our misery, and they squirt us in the eye even as we weep. They make us laugh, in spite of our circumstances. I saw the photograph, and didn't feel the least bit sorry for the person in the Human Resources office who had the singular honor of processing the clown. I was thinking, Gee, I wish I could have been there for that one. What a great story to be able to tell my friends and family -- I got to lay off Bozo! I wasn't even too sorry for the clown. He showed imagination and nerve in the face of some pretty real adversity, and he followed through on his feelings with a glorious display of perspective. He brought gaiety into a sad time, and I envied him. I hope he finds work with a better company soon. I know I'd enjoy working with him.

Excuse me. It's time I stop clowning around, and get some work done.


25 September 2001

”Make no mistake; the American Revolution
 was not fought to obtain freedom, but to
 preserve the liberties that Americans
 already had as colonials. Independence
was no conscious goal, secretly nurtured
 in cellar or jungle by bearded conspirators,
 but a reluctant last resort, to preserve
 “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” "

  - The Oxford History of the American People

Every day has its own little oddity to bring to the dinner table. A couple of days ago, the oddity at my table was a remark I made about a recently reported news item: as a result of their in-flight misconduct, three people were banned from air travel by two major airlines. I said I was glad to know these people weren’t likely to be on future flights, and I applauded the airlines for the courage to ban them. I said that since the airlines were private enterprises, they should be allowed to set rules for who can or cannot purchase tickets for travel. They should be applauded for keeping known troublemakers off the planes.

I was promptly met by a firestorm of criticism and invective from my spouse, a person whose opinions matter to me. The things my beloved said included casting aspersions on my loyalties as a patriotic American; my addictive, mindless agreement with filthy capitalists (these were the airlines); and my seeming determination to undermine the very foundations upon which this great country are built. Curious about the vehemence with which this outburst was delivered, I asked for help in making me understand where my logic was flawed. Why should an airline be forced to sell a ticket to a person who is a known, documented troublemaker?

My spouse offered, “If I get really drunk and abusive, and I decide to scream at or threaten the cabin crew, or defecate on a serving tray in full view of everyone in first class, just like that executive did a few years ago, that doesn’t give you the right to tell me I can’t fly any more. All you can do is remove me from the plane, have me arrested, and sue me for the expenses incurred as a result of my actions. You can’t stop me from flying, especially if I have to fly to make my living--that’s against the Constitution!”

I asked specifically which Constitutional right was being infringed by the ban. “Why, the freedom of movement, that’s which right. Nobody can stop me from traveling in the country--it’s against the law!”

I did the only thing I could do in the circumstances. I decided to go straight to the source.

Last spring, MightyWords offered a significant online writing competition, open to all U.S. citizens. The subject of the competition was the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the “Bill of Rights.” Contestants were invited to write about what the Bill of Rights meant to them in today’s world, in no fewer than 1,000 and no more than 5,000 words. The first prize was $15,000. The winning essays would be selected by Jonathan Kellerman, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Richard Goodwin. The winning essays would be announced and published on Independence Day, July 4th.

To facilitate the contestants’ creative impulses, MightyWords provided additional material. There was a reprint of a brief history of the Bill of Rights by the American Civil Liberties Union, the complete text of the Bill of Rights as ratified on December 15, 1791, and a collection of “eMatter” essays titled “American Perspectives," with each Amendment considered by a contemporary thinker.

I read all the material, thinking I could easily write an award-winning essay. After all, once I picked an Amendment, the rest would come easily to me. I even went a step further, poring over my 1968 “College Outline Series” edition of the U.S. Constitution. I studied the origins, the Virginia Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, cases involving Federal legislation declared Unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the Qualfications and Powers of government officials, and a list of when the states were admitted into the Union. I also read all of the “eMatter” essays.

The trouble was, by the time I finished reading all the source material, I came away from the research overwhelmed. The essay I’d hoped to write wasn’t going to be the snappy serving up of patriotic jingoism I’d expected. I realized I felt deeply about the things I read. I got closest to the truth in my opening statements: “The effect of the Bill of Rights is such an integral part of my life, so tightly woven into the fabric of my daily existence, I am not certain I can extricate myself from it in order to examine it as a thing apart from me. I feel as if I’ve been asked to examine the meaning and value of the air that moves in and out of my lungs.”

I may not have won $15,000 as the result of my writing, but I learned a whole lot more than I ever expected to about the underpinning principles of the U.S. government. Sitting at my dinner table, I was preparing to discuss and defend what freedoms and rights we as citizens actually possessed.

Amendment One says, “Congress that make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This means Congress can’t legislate religion, prevent free speech by individuals or the press, or prevent peaceful gatherings or the right to ask the Government to intervene in wrongs. Nothing at all dealing with the right to climb aboard a public vehicle in that one, so I moved on.

The only real, specific reference to travel came from Article Four of the Articles of Confederation, effective March 1, 1781. The Article says, “The better to secure and perpetuate mutual friendship and intercourse among the different people of the different states in this union, the free inhabitants of each of these states, paupers, vagabonds and fugitives from justice excepted, shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of free citizens in the several states; and the people of each state shall have free engress and regress to and from any other state...” In other words, anyone has a right to enter or leave any state they like. The Article does not, however, address itself to the how of that entry or exit. Nothing at all about having a right to climb aboard a public vehicle to effect the desired travel. It’s only the right to come and go that gets addressed. How a citizen comes or goes is entirely up to the citizen and his or her means.

When I finished reading, I said that a refusal to sell me a ticket based on my own bad behavior did not reflect discrimination or a Constitutional infringement -- it merely meant the company was looking out for the safety and welfare of its passengers. They were behaving responsibly and in the public interest if they refused me admission, when they knew I was a troublemaker. I pointed out that nobody was saying the people who’d been banned couldn’t go anywhere they wanted -- they just couldn’t do it on the named airlines. I said the airlines weren’t infringing those people’s rights. They were protecting mine.

When the discussion ended, my beloved left me sitting alone at the table. I thought about the many recently reported cases of air rage, and how in several of those cases, the offenders had nearly succeeded in bringing about disasters. I wondered if anyone would want to see those same offenders sitting in the adjacent seat on a future flight.

Excuse me. I’m going to finish my Bill of Rights essay. I think I know now what I want to say.


22 September 2001

"What mighty contests rise from trivial things!"
   - A. Pope, The Rape of the Lock, canto I

Albert Camus wrote L'Etranger, known also as "The Stranger." The book was an immediate bestseller when it was released, because the theme of being a social outcast, a misfit, an outsider, struck a chord with readers. The book became a cult classic. All the great poets and writers were wrapped in their mantles of existential angst. Outsiders were in. Aliens were admired for their tortured spirits.

I don't know why we need SETI. The organization purports to seek out extraterrestrial intelligence in the galaxies, but I say why bother spending millions on equipment and research, when we have aliens right here on our own terra firma? Why should we have to go out into the cosmos hunting for alien intelligence, when it's right under our noses, and visible with the thumb-press of a remote control?
I'm speaking, of course, about the three Big Brother 2 finalists on CBS television. For those of you who might live in remote places that don't have access to newspapers, TV Guide, or electricity, let me explain.

CBS network decided to run Big Brother to compete with the ratings successes of NBC's wildly popular Survivor, which gave the term "voted off the island" a place in our national consciousness. CBS built a house on a sound studio, furnished it, and then wired every available inch with cables for microphones and hidden cameras, the better to capture endless footage of people going about the business of living in a confined space with strangers. They next invited twelve contestants to enter the house as residents for a twelve-week period, with the proviso that all contestants would remain sequestered from contact with the world outside the domicile until they were either evicted by a majority vote of the others, or they spontaneously self-combusted.

Each week, two people were nominated for exile, and the hour-long television broadcast showed the world the drama of the political maneuvering among the contestants as the contestants readied their votes. Each week, a news-style host offered commentary on the action in the house, and speculation about what the coming week's events would reveal. The game ended when only two contestants remained in the house, at which time, all the evictees returned and cast one final vote, for the "winner."

Millions of people watched the second airing of this show, and at the same time, many also tuned in to watch the contestants on the Internet via spy cameras positioned strategically throughout the house. After all, who wouldn't jump at the chance to sit in front of the computer for several hours a day, watching grown men and women being driven mad with boredom and mistrust? The hope was always that something bad or nasty would erupt, and the viewer would be rewarded with a scandal in real-time? Nobody seemed to find it ironic that behavior which would normally be the grounds for an injunction or an arrest -- being a peeping Tom -- was now being actively encouraged for the sake of ratings.

Weeks passed; alliances and strategies were formed and abandoned; contestants made confessions about their fears and mistrust in the "isolation booth;" consciences were pricked; votes were cast; tears were shed; housemates left under clouds of curses, or holding their heads defiantly high. As the number of residents diminished, the struggle to remain intensified, and the ratings rose. Interest grew in the public mind. Would Monica be able to outlast Nicole and defeat Will? Would Will find another lie to incite Nicole to rash action? Would Nicole sacrifice herself in order to get back to her husband, who a few weeks earlier rented an airplane to fly overhead with a message to her about his displeasure at something he saw or heard involving her? What would happen? Who would be in the final week?

Before we could find out, we were overtaken by events. However, the members of the house were not. CBS maintained its moratorium on outside contacts, and kept the housemates ignorant of the extent of the blood-curdling tragedy of September 11th. They were affected directly, and did not know it. Monica's cousin was in one of the NYC towers, and presumed dead, having not been seen since the morning of the collapses. Questions arose in the forums and in the news -- should the moratorium be lifted? Should the housemates be allowed to participate in what was happening in the world outside the confines of their house?

The network executives and producers decided to keep silent, and to keep the contestants in the dark. They made the decision to hold back information, so as to not "contaminate" the game. Even though the episode was pre-empted by urgent news reports, CBS's spy cameras continued to roll.

But what were the cameras seeing? Aliens, that's what. Creatures so removed from the connection to everyday life and society that their conversations, their thoughts, and the actions they took while under the camera's all-seeing eye, could not have seemed more bizarre or incomprehensible to us than if they'd just landed on Earth from Alpha Centauri. They weren't any more real to us than ET, or the mummified carcass at Roswell, New Mexico.

The politics, back-stabbing, and shifty allegiances just didn't seem all that important or relevant to us, given what we were being collectively forced to process, out in the "real" world. Our lives were changed. Their lives were trivialized, in a way none of them probably deserved. Who won the game? 

Who really cares?

Excuse me. I have to ask Scotty to beam me up. There's no intelligent life down here.


21 September 2001

"I don't care about the word isolationism, and I
 don't care about the word appeasement.  I'm
 interested in the rights and needs and
responsibilities of the United States. We
 are not the policemen of mankind. We are
 not able to run the world, and we shouldn't
 pretend that we can.  Let us tend to our own
 business, which is great enough as it is. 
It's very great.  We have neglected our own
 affairs.  Our education is inadequate, our
 cities are badly built, our social arrangements
are unsatisfactory.  We can't wait another
 generation.  Unless we can surmount this crisis,
 and work and get going onto the path of a
settlement in Asia, and a settlement in Europe,
 all of these plans of the Great Society here
 at home, all the plans for the rebuilding of
 backward countries in other continents will
 all be put on the shelf, because war interrupts
 everything like that."

  - Conversations with Walter Lippmann (1965). 
    Lippman and Sevareid, February 22, 1965
For more than a week now, I've been taking in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the world around me in a new way. I've wrapped my thoughts around the horrors we are daily reporting in our news media, and pinned my hopes on the slender possibility there will be more miracles, more good than bad, coming out of the wreckage. I've read and heard many people's ideas about how their lives and mine are going to change as a result of what happened on September 11, 2001.

Nobody seems to be discussing how our lives are going to change as a result of what happens today, what we think and do today, in this minute, as we exist right now. It's as if we are willing to negate our own Zeitgeist, our collective interpretation of the world at an unconscious, or perhaps preconscious, level. Why do you suppose that is?

I'll tell you what I think it is: we're afraid of being held fully accountable for what we do, think, and say. We are immobilized by our unreasoning belief that something we did or said somehow caused these terrible things to happen. Well, guess what? We did, when we refused to act in the name of goodness, preferring to ignore the growing problems. We did, when we declined to look squarely at what frightens or disgusts us--our ignorance feeds our fear, and gives evil purchase in our lives. We did, when we chose to disengage, rather than engage, hoping the horrors would magically disappear, or that somebody else would take care of it for us.

I'd be willing to bet many people are already nostalgic for our "lost innocence," and they wish for a return to the halcyon days of unquestioned invincibility and power in the world. I wish for that, too. I grew up at a time when the threat of nuclear destruction seemed everywhere, a time when my teachers spent time instructing me in the "duck and cover" maneuver to take in the event of an incoming missile. I even have a photograph of that drill, with my nine- and ten-year-old classmates peering out from under their desks, waiting for the all clear signal from the teacher. The faces are smiling, but I remember how anxious I felt, curled into a ball on the hardwood floor, waiting.

And this is what some people now yearn for--a return to that anxiety, and a chance to raise another generation of fearful children who hide from megaton bombs under pressed wood platforms. Others yearn for an end to the violence and hatred, but with somebody else in charge.

Me? I yearn for every person who has a family, a vote, a voice, to make himself or herself heard, and to participate actively in the process of rebuilding ourselves and healing the wounds that cripple us. I want people to put their money, time, and energy into choosing what they will support in this world. I want people to understand that what they feel, think, say, and do really matters, and can make a difference.

Who knows which one of us will be the one hundredth monkey?

Excuse me. I have a sudden urge to go wash a sweet potato.


17 September 2001

"Who if I cried out, would hear me among the
angels' hierarchies? and even if one of them
pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming
- Rainer Maria Rilke,  Duino Elegies, I

I've been speaking this last week with people all over the world, and I have yet to encounter even one person who has not been sad, horrified, and anxious about what might happen next. The nuclear clock moves toward midnight, and we all worry, even when we can't express our fears directly. I'm as worried as the next person, believe me. I've been like a butterfly all week long, trying to settle onto something, but flitting back and forth nervously, tentative and touchy, unable to focus on anything long enough to stay still and reflect.

That is, until today. Today, I found a poem by Stephen Dobyns, which comes from his 1977 collection of poems, Heat Death. I am only going to quote part of that poem in this forum, as it pertains to what I felt, but the entire thing is certainly worth reading. The poem is titled "The Delicate, Plummeting Bodies." It tells the story of how Death withdrew from the world, tired of the complaining men who never seemed satisfied by anything Death did. This is what finally came to pass when a delegation of men went and begged Death to return.

How Death was restored to his people: At first the smallest creatures began to die -- bacteria and certain insects. No one noticed. Then fish began to float to the surface; lizards and tree toads toppled from sun-warmed rocks. Still no one saw them. 
Then birds began tumbling out of the air, and as sunlight flickered on the blue feathers of the jay, brown of the hawk, white of the dove, then people lifted their heads and pointed to the sky and from the thirsty streets cries of welcome rose up like a net to catch the delicate and plummeting bodies.

I also spent some time with my old friend Joseph Campbell this afternoon. He was nearing the end of his own life when he spoke of what faith means, and where divinity resides. He said the real eternity is in the immediate now, this very moment, and it is our job as human beings to live as fully as we can in this moment, and honor the divinity in "the other." Who is the other? Why, it's the stranger sitting next to you on the subway or bus. It's the child screaming with glee on a flying swing. It's the man who sells you a newspaper on the street corner. It's the woman who pushes a shopping cart through the city streets at midnight. It's you. According to Campbell, what's up to me is to honor the divinity I see in each and every one of you, every moment I can see and sense it.

Life endures, as does death. What also endures is our indomitable spirit, and our prayers.

Excuse me. I may be on my knees right now, but I'm definitely going to rise again. And in the meantime, I'll say a prayer while I'm down here.


14 September 2001

"Across time 
 and space 
 for all 
   - White Feather

I'm trying to make sense of the events of the past week, just like everyone else in the world. Not much does make sense, unfortunately. All the philosophy, all the flag-waving, all the religion -- none of it addresses the real issue for me, which is connected to all those people who stepped out of time and into eternity on September 11, 2001.

What feels right for me is what I wrote on December 31, 1999. It's right out of my journal, so if it feels raw, that's because it is. I'm throwing it out into the Universe, hoping it feels right to somebody else, too.

* * * * *
31 December 1999
I just watched the Millennium Celebration from Sydney, Australia, more than sixteen hours in advance of our own celebrations -- what a blow-out. They had Tchaikovsky on the Opera House loudspeakers, and a kilometer-wide fireworks display, lasting more than half an hour. There were also fireworks lighting the sky from several skyscrapers, and then, at the very end, they showed us something really wonderful, really human, something to thread us together in our hopes for the future. As the final fireworks were blasting off and the closing strains of the music began to die down, the Australian news commentator told us a story.

In the 1950's and 1960's, a recovering alcoholic was inspired by what he believed was a revelation from God. From the moment of the revelation on, he spent all the years remaining in his life spreading the divine message around Sydney. He went everywhere, writing "Eternity" in chalk on every surface he encountered. Sidewalks, buildings, park benches -- everywhere. The commentator said the man wrote the word at least fifty times each day, 365 days each year, which resulted in a staggering total of at least 40,000 times before his death. The man was a local legend in Sydney, and over time, word about him spread throughout Australia.

What touched me in the story was how astonishingly apt it was for the moment. At the very instant when every heart and every mind was focused on the passing of time -- the second, the hour, the century, the millennium -- the Australians decided to illuminate the one word that represents timelessness, and being out of time. "Eternity" blazed golden in the darkness beneath the bridge, shining brightly over the dark harbor, as the bells rang a triumphant carillon.

Very impressive. Very meaningful. Especially at a time when people around the world are celebrating, commemorating, and greeting the dawn of a new age. All the people who were born before this day, and who see the sun rise tomorrow, have the right to say, "I have a life that spans centuries."

What I write today is part of the 20th century and the second Millennium; what I write tomorrow, the universe willing, will be 21st century, third Millennium words.

People have been so blind. They've been so completely focused on the effect of time's passage relative to computer systems, they've lost the sense of something miraculous happening right in front of us. Everyone is anxious about what they'll do if things they've come to rely upon stop working. What if my car won't start? What will I do without email? What if the columns on my spreadsheet don't add up? What if there is no electricity for my razor/coffeemaker/hedge trimmers? What if the distribution channels dry up? What if our military loses its ability to track enemy aircraft and ships? What if critical maintenance routines fail with the spin of a single digit, a move from '99' to '00,' and cause the systems to believe they're ninety-nine years off-schedule?

What if, what if... but what if we are so focused on our technology, we forget to celebrate our advances, and our accomplishments? What if we forget that our lives aren't dependent upon the binary output of some machine? What if we forget the meaning of time itself, and timelessness? Are we nothing more than the 'wetware' that powers the 'software?' Are we only suited to exist as acolytes of a digital god?

There are people all over the country, and probably all over the world, who live in such terror of the changing century, they are barricading themselves in remote shelters. They've stockpiled goods -- food, clothing, fuel, weapons, wood, candles, batteries, matches, water, and even livestock -- in the expectation of disaster, the complete breakdown of civilization.

For some reason, the fear is that all the infrastructure underpinning our lives is going to suddenly collapse, and the dreaded "Helter Skelter" is finally going to come to pass.

The people who are preparing for the conflagration are consumed by their fears. They believe the center cannot hold, and that society must collapse in fire, warfare, and chaos. They are like the Buddhists who subscribe to the belief that men suffer from 108 evil desires, except they do not believe, as the Buddhists do, that man has any hope for controlling or overcoming those desires. The survivalists believe that Armageddon is arriving, if not at the stroke of midnight, then soon. The only way to ensure safety is to withdraw to the far hills, hunkered down in caves and bunkers, shooting invaders who dare intrude into their staked space.

Why don't those people feel the same hope I did as that incredible word, twenty meters high and one kilometer wide, shone out its message? "Eternity."

* * * * *

We are eternal, and timeless. Terrorists can't take that away from us.


10 September 2001

"The requirement of conspicuous wastefulness is not
commonly present, consciously, in our canons of taste,
but it is none the  less present as a constraining
norm selectively shaping and  sustaining our sense
of what is beautiful, and guiding our discrimination
with respect to what may legitimately be approved
as beautiful and what may not."
           -Thorstein Veblein

From time to time, I get things delivered to my door that actually influence me to think. Thinking is not a natural or common thing, even though I am almost constantly besieged by what passes for thought in my active mind, and throughout my life, my friends and foes alike have urged the process on me, with only limited success. As a result, those rare occasions when it occurs, I invariably pay attention, never knowing when the next real thinking might occur.

Today's thought arrived courtesy of a fountain pen retailer in New York City, who periodically sends me catalogs of the latest, greatest offerings in the store. The catalogs are miracles of the reproduction technology, in high-resolution, 256-color art, on thick, glossy paper stock over which I greedily, happily run my fingers. The photographs of the products are designed to make pen collectors salivate, and I usually do.

In fact, when I get the newest catalog, I feel like a million bucks, which is what I am sure the retailer would like me to spend on my writing implements. Alas, courtesy of my blasted thinking, things have changed.

For the first time ever, I feel as if I never want to acquire another pen.

I went through all the normal routines. I sat down in my comfy chair with a cup of coffee, prepared to enjoy my favorite fountain pen fantasies. These often take the form of me writing checks for exotic vacation homes, or signing autographs for adoring fans who hold copies of my most recent bestseller in their hands. Occasionally, I write checks for charities, to fund medical research, or to endow universities with chairs. However, the best fantasies are the ones in which the mere sight of the rare, expensive, elegant pen in my hand is enough to make onlookers swoon with envy and admiration. It's a wonderful, harmless way to while away half an hour or so in otherwise hectic, cash-strapped days. I opened the catalog and began my drill. That's when my trouble started.

The Montegrappas, Omases, Auroras, Deltas, Michel Perchins, and Namikis weren't exerting their usual pull on my imagination. The Montblancs, Marlens, Duponts, and Hyseks weren't lifting my spirits. They didn't look like anything I wanted. Worse, the lower-cost pens, Crosses, Parkers, Stipulas, Rotrings, and Pelikans, looked positively uninspired, cheaply made, and junky.

Yes, that's the word for it. Junky, cluttered, squatty, ill-proportioned, and ill-conceived, with scarcely more than lip service to the elements of line, design elegance, and utility. What's worse, the cover pen, which is usually the best one in the catalog, was completely unmemorable, a lump of reddish-ocher celluloid, with brassy trim. I stared in disbelief. It was so unattractive, I wondered why they even bothered to manufacture it. I couldn't imagine myself wanting to write with it.

Things got worse. A couple of pages later, another array of pens on a two-page display. These "commemorative" collections are a fairly common marketing trick for pen manufacturers. The idea is to "theme" the pen collection around a person, an event, or a place that inspires the user to thoughts of greatness. A couple of years ago, there was a rash of "Jubilee 50" pens, in honor of the founding of Israel. Last year, there were African-themed collections in honor of Nelson Mandela. In other years, we have seen pen collections that commemorate Nobel Prize winners, animal rights advocates, humanitarians, scientists, writers, and innovators of all stripes, in all areas of human endeavor.

This year, the pickings are slimmer. The first commemoration was for Alfa Romeo, the second, for Federico Fellini.

For the automobile maker, the catalog offered a rather lengthy paragraph regarding the history and accomplishments of the company in its 1950's heyday. There was a single sentence to describe the construction, materials, and configuration of the pen. There was also a per piece price list, in case the buyer's desire didn't extend to the whole collection. A single red resin-cased pen with sterling trim and a gold-plated nib costs $365. The pen isn't particularly beautiful, though, with all the design effort and tooling expended on the silver Alfa Romeo logo on the cap and barrel. I once owned a 1978 Alfa Romeo GTV. I found myself wondering if the pen would be any more reliable than the car had been.

Even more pretentious in design and presentation was the Fellini "Limited Edition" collection. The catalog blurb announced that only 1920 (no comma) Fountain Pens and Rollerballs will be offered worldwide. I read another lengthy, adjective-laden paragraph explaining the "why" of the collection, including praise for Fellini's contribution to film making, and for his insightful portrayals of Italian life and character. There was also a mention of the fact that Fellini is credited with inventing "neorealism" in motion pictures. I wondered if they were describing "Satyricon," or "La Dolce Vita," with enough weird characters and neorealism in them to fuel years of my fever-dreams and nightmares.

Regardless, the fountain pen itself featured a black resin for the cap and the feeder screw and "pearled" ivory resin for the barrel. The cap accents, which consist of a faint design in the form of a three-frame film clip, are vermeil -- gold-plated sterling silver. The pen costs $525. If the manufacturers sell out their entire inventory, it's worth $1,009,010 for their efforts. In addition, there is a "Special Edition" Limited Edition of 920 pieces. These pens are doubly exclusive, fashioned of "hand-turned" resin. They have actual images from Fellini films etched into the three little vermeil film frames on the cap. There is a "lateral lever" filling system, the control mechanism of which is "plated in platinum." For one of these, though, the collector will have to fork over $1,150, giving the manufacturer $1,068,000 more to add to the bottom line. The Special Edition was even gaudier and worse looking than the Limited Edition.

However, these weren't even the most expensive pens in the catalog. The most expensive pens showed up a page later, courtesy of another venerable manufacturer. These pens are part of a collection honoring Russian Czar Nikolai I, whose claim to fame was the insipid, uninspired rule of the country with the assistance and support of the Boyars. Czar Nikolai I's love of pomp and elegance nearly bankrupted the country, more than once. Apparently, the manufacturer decided the Czarist love for the color green as a signature decorating color was worth pursuing, in the form of a chunky design, malachite resin, and "platinum finish." There are two styles of fountain pen, the "LeGrand" and the "Classique," as well as a matching rollerball, ball point, mechanical pencil, cufflinks, key ring, and money clip. For the less opulent-minded, there is a "discounted" Nikolai I collection in hematite and stainless steel. The malachite collection, should a collector fancy it in its entirety, costs $4,650. The hematite collection, although discounted, still rings in at a hefty $3,820. Remarkably, these are not "Limited Edition" collections, which means the manufacturer probably intends to generate as many of these pens, pencils, and accessories as the market will reasonably bear.

I sat staring at the pages, and the thoughts began to surface, one after another, in quick succession. 

Who in his right mind is going to spend more than $1,000 for a fountain pen that is in no way rare? A fountain pen which has been manufactured expressly for the purpose of appealing to some bizarre sense of entitlement, or affinity with a long-dead, profligate Russian ruler?

It occurred to me I would be certifiably insane if I spent $500 for a single mechanical pencil, or a ball point, unless the pencil was made of solid gold, and then, would I dare risk carrying it about in my pocket? I was struck by how shameless and naked the marketing ploy truly was, with its blatant attempt to appeal to snobbery and elitism. I wondered what exactly they were trying to pull off with the advertisement, and who exactly it was they believed was dumb enough to fall for it?

I wasn't just thinking about the manufacturer, either. I also considered the retailer's part in this questionable display of taste. The greed is rampant, from one end of the process, straight through to the other. In that moment, I realized things have gotten way out of hand in the past decade or so, where pen collecting is concerned.

I think pen collectors and manufacturers should be ashamed of what has happened to what was once a nice little hobby for a few people who have long been in love with writing tools. It's become just another money-grubbing, selfish, and self-aggrandizing way for a lot of people to boast publicly about their own worth. It's ridiculous, when you get right down to it. Who really cares how many pens a person possesses, or where those expensive tools were purchased? Who has any interest at all in the dollar value of a pen, unless it is also a pen that has been used to write a poem, a letter, a prescription that saved a life, a best-selling book, or the memoirs of a person whose grace and genius touched and transformed the world, and the way people think?

The pens in the catalog are all brand new, uninked, unmarked, fresh from the manufacturer factories. 

They don't qualify as works of art, because they are mass-produced. They are as impersonal as the stones in a riverbed. Why, then, are so many people so willing to spend so much money? There is a
threshold of aesthetics and taste, to be sure, but really, is the $1,000 fountain pen going to actually do anything its $10 counterpart won't? The taste is acquired. The aesthetics are what drive up the price.

Thorstein Veblein had a point.

Excuse me. I have a $10 bill in my pocket, burning a hole. I've changed my mind. think I may need a new pen.


04 September 2001

"You are what you do.  You can recreate yourself
every second of your life." 
   -Xena, Warrior Princess
'm in a quandary. I just discovered I am handicapped for a position I want, not because I am not qualified (I am), but because I have spent too many years doing something for which I have considerably less qualification, and being far too successful at doing it.

In other words, I'm underqualified for what I'm qualified to be, because I'm overqualified in my performance at something for which I have no qualifications.

Does this make sense to you? I didn't think so. I'm still trying to sort it out in my own head, and it's me we're discussing.

My options feel limited at this moment. According to the man who delivered this astonishing bit of logic to me, had I spent less time doing what I did, or even been less spectacularly successful while doing it, I'd have been hired in a heartbeat. My past success is limiting my future in a way I never expected.

After he delivered this news, the man told me it was "a real pleasure" to meet somebody who had done "as much" as I apparently had, and he "knew" he and I would be well-suited to working together. He also said he hoped I wouldn't consider this a definitive no -- if nobody better showed up soon, he would be in touch with me. He just thought I'd be a "hard sell" to the other employees in the organization.

His suggestion was that I should go all the way back to the bottom rung of the ladder I now want to be on, and spend some time as an unpaid intern, so I could point to my stint as "paying my dues" in my new, desired field of endeavor. It doesn't seem to matter that all the skills I possess are exactly the skills he purports to want, or that I have decades of experience.

What seems to matter is the paying of dues.

I don't know when we decided to charge admission and membership fees to competent, bright men and women looking for gainful employment. There was a time we took those people on willingly, and rewarded them for initiative, pluck, and gumption. If they failed, we ushered them out the door, thanking them for the effort they made. If they succeeded, well, after a lifetime of service and accomplishment, there was a banquet and a gold watch. We did not talk then about "paying dues." 

Instead, we talked about performance, and results. Do what you say you'll do, and keep your promises. Do your best, and rewards will follow. Pay attention, learn, and keep on learning, until you are ready to teach somebody else what you know.

Excuse me. I need to go reinvent myself for this new, strange age. Maybe then I'll have the right qualifications for the job.


23 August 2001

"The trouble with the rat race is, even if you win,
you're still a rat."
   - Lily Tomlin

I am sitting at my workstation, sunlight pouring into the room at an unreasonably early hour. I’ve been online already. Even though the service provider has gone bankrupt, the systems are still up and running while another provider salvages the usable pieces. I had a look to see if anything new is posted in the provider’s internal news group. There is.

The man who oversaw the daily operations of the business, who led the team that made all the wrong, bad decisions, who let the company fall into extraordinary debt and disarray while the customers suffered, now writes pathetic little notes to the users. He says he’s not sure what he’ll do next, but one possibility that suggests itself to him is to follow his engineers to the CLEC that purchased his operation. He observes that he’s learned being between the customers and the telephone company is a terrible position for anyone, and he’ll be glad to be out of it. The service in the company and the relationships with long-term customers declined with his arrival on the scene, but he does not seem to have observed this.

I always think it’s interesting to hear what arrogant, proud men have to say for themselves when they are undone by the very wheels they set in motion with their own hands and minds.

I remember how furiously angry I was last summer. I was trying to upgrade to a 56K modem on a computer I wasn’t prepared to ditch. The upgrade wasn’t going well at all. The ISP’s technical support folks blamed the modem manufacturer, the telephone company, and the computer manufacturer for my predicament, feeling themselves blameless. No matter that they’d swapped out access servers at precisely the same time I installed a new modem. “Not our problem,” they insisted, “all our equipment is industry-standard. It’s definitely a problem on your end.”

I believed them at first, and restored my original modem and settings. The performance was abysmal, nowhere near the level of performance I’d experienced the four previous years. “It must be your telephone line,” they said when I reported back my results. “Call the phone company and have them test your lines.” The telephone company came and tested my lines, at the standard rate for service contacts. The ISP technicians bumped me back and forth between first-line and second-line support, and I spoke to several supposedly senior people, all of whom seemed baffled by my problems, because “Nobody else is having trouble.” I’d been reading flames on the newsgroup for weeks. The president of the company posted a note, sneering at my technical ineptitude, and my “whining” about service levels and performance. He suggested the only thing wrong with my computer was the person operating it. He said, “I stand behind my decision to upgrade our equipment for the greater good of our customers.” With that, I stopped believing, and found myself another, better provider, even though I had pre-paid for six months of the old ISP’s services.

I logged in to the old provider now and again, just because I was still paying for the services. About a month after my switch, I found announcements by the ISP’s technical support manager in the internal newsgroup stating the “upgrade” to the new equipment had “failed.” All equipment and settings were being returned to their original states. I laughed when I read the post. I wasn’t going to be returned to my original state.

I’d been maligned in a public forum by people I didn’t know, who’d been paid for services they weren’t rendering to me. In the end, it was my threat of exposure to the Better Business Bureau that got results. I told the ISP’s president, “Just keep it up. I’m beyond caring what you do. I’m a writer, and all of this is going to make for dandy reading in a local trade journal or newspaper.” I may have aimed too low.

The same arrogant manager who so infuriated me then now nostalgically addresses us, the disenfranchised customers, about “the good old days.” The irony is, this is not the person who made those days good. This is the person whose management decisions made all the trouble. I am always surprised when organizations fail to keep their focus on customers. I guess it’s hard to be humble. 

Look at all the people who have climbed the slippery slope, achieved the summit, and then fallen. 

What they wanted was power and control. What they discovered, all of them, was that they could not maintain either power or control without the approval of those who they wished to subjugate. The venue doesn’t really matter, either — the issues and outcomes are always the same.

Excuse me. I have to send up a serving of steaming crow to the newly-unemployed executive. I wonder if he’s hungry enough to eat it?


21 August 2001

"Let the world know you as you are."
    - Fanny Brice

Prompted by some perverse urge, yesterday I decided it was time to look myself up on the World Wide Web. I wanted to see what the viewing public thought it knew about me. I wanted to know how exactly to what extent my private life was exposed, and whether there were opinions or ideas about me in existence that I didn't already know about.

There are many search tools from which I could have chosen, but I decided I'd take the simplest, most direct route I could. I used "Google," which is simple, and fast. I've heard it's currently the most widely used search engine in the world, in regular use by millions of Web surfers. When "Google" was first introduced a couple of years ago, ancient history in dot-com terms, I was amused by the conceit of the site's name, a sly smooshing together of the words "go" and "ogle," and equally pleased by the speed and accuracy of the search results. Today, I am amused by the way people routinely refer to the site as "google," and their bemusement over why a search engine should be named for a cartoon character.

It was to discover how many of these same people had access to information about me I initiated my search.

I forced myself to keep the search simple. First name, space, last name. Search.

My name is not particularly common, with unusual spellings of my given name as well as my family name. Knowing this, I was unprepared for the results, which displayed after 2.3114 seconds of searching. 2,314 pages, with the combinations of "given family," "given," and "family," displayed in order of confidence in the matching criteria. Even after eliminating the pages which did not have an exact match, there were still more than 100 pages.

Who were all these people, and why were they parading around the Internet advertising themselves as me? I decided to look through some of the pages.

I discovered that I am a versatile person, with a stunningly wide range of talents, experiences, and expertise. Depending on whose page you believe is really me, you come away thinking I am married, single, engaged, divorced, or separated. I am a teenager, a forty-something baby boomer, or a retiree. I live in San Francisco, Detroit, Washington DC, Topeka, Dublin, Denpasar, or Toronto. I am a nuclear physicist, an Irish geologist, a writer, a classical musician, a graduate student, an agriculturalist, a teacher, an athlete, a lawyer, a nutrionist, a faith healer, or a marketing assistant. Oh, wait. Faith healers are marketing assistants, aren't they?

I am also deceased, as of October 31, 2000. I died on Halloween after a brief illness. Knowing I died appeals to my sense of irony as I struggle to embrace myself as all these people. As I read my obituary, I was thinking, good, there's one less version of me to be concerned about.

A few pages had email addresses which look very familiar to me, since they are all variations of my own email address. Some pages had contact information that included home addresses, office addresses, and telephone numbers. I could actually pick up my telephone and call myself, if I wanted to. I'm trying to decide whether or not I have the nerve to make contact with others who have walked on this earth and know what it is to react and respond when our name is spoken or written. I feel a kinship with these people, whether they know anything about me or not. And what would I do, should any of them come searching after me?

Excuse me. I need to go update my home page.


02 August 2001

"The price of greatness is responsibility."
    - Winston Churchill

Elian Gonzales was recently in the news again, a follow-up piece to show people what has become of him since his return home to Cuba. I commented, “It’s too bad what’s happened. They’ve ruined that child’s life. And ruined the child, too. Look at him. He’ll never be normal again. How could he be, after this?”

The boy was mugging with the sly, precocious, irritating arrogance that false modesty reveals, very much as he used to mug for the reporters who vied with each other for a glimpse of Elian during his stay in Florida. I was struck by how he seemed eager for the camera’s eye, the public attention he was receiving. Here was a child groomed to celebrity. While we don’t see as much of him now, every day he was in the US, we were treated to images of Elian at play, Elian with the loving family, Elian going to school, Elian as the focus of a custody battle in which governments were depicted as archetypal forces of good and evil.

The facts were these:

A little boy was discovered floating off the coast of Florida, the lone survivor of a boating accident. He was claimed by relatives in Miami, who took him to their home and petitioned the courts for legal custody. The boy’s frantic father, on learning of his son’s location, asked that his son be returned to him in Cuba. The Florida relatives resisted efforts to return the boy to his father. Two grandmothers flew to the US in an attempt to convince the Justice Department that their grandson should be returned to his father’s custody. The boy’s father flew to the US to personally escort his son back to Cuba. The relatives again resisted the government’s request to surrender the boy to his father.

Beyond the bare facts was another story:

Elian Gonzales’s life was ruined from the first day he arrived on United States soil. He was never treated as an individual, he was a symbol to us of the ideological and socio-political warfare waged between the US and Cuban governments. There was no reason to keep the boy from his father, who by all accounts, loved Elian. Instead, people all over the country jumped on the disgraceful bandwagon of chest-thumping nationalism, convincing themselves they had the “right” to keep the boy, because his life would be “better” in the US than under Castro’s government in Cuba. The Cuban government demanded Elian’s return, while Cuban politicians and officials made haranguing speeches about the evil opportunism of the godless and unprincipled people in the United States.

The media had a wonderful time retelling Elian’s story, each successive version tilting the truth just a little bit to better illuminate whatever ideology or point for which they held the strongest conviction. Millions of viewers, listeners, and readers joined in the endless, knotted debate.

We decided somewhere along the line we desired a mythological struggle, so we framed the battle for the boy in terms of an heroic quest for freedom, with Fidel Castro as the embodiment of threatening darkness. The problem is, the “hero” was only six years old. He simply could not understand the context of the battle being waged over him. He was told that a life of mind-crushing controls and obscurity awaited him if he was forced to return to his father. Elian thought he was the most important little boy in the whole world, because everyone around him told him he was. What he knew was he got plenty of attention, plenty of toys, and plenty of money.

His plight, a whole year of it, was observed by the rest of the world. In the same year, the United States government drafted petitions demanding that children who were taken to other countries to be returned to the parent still residing in the US. There were men and women who were desperate for news of sons and daughters spirited off to Asian, African, or European nations. These parents grieved over every moment of separation, and they turned to the United States government for intercession and assistance in recovering their missing children.

In most of these cases, the children were either living with the absconding parent, or in the bosom of the extended family. The United States government worked diligently to ensure the safe, swift return of the “kidnapped” child to the grief-stricken parent.

Nobody saw any irony, tragic or otherwise, in the fact that the Gonzales affair was the same, only it was the drowned mother who absconded with the son, spiriting him off to the United States, unbeknownst to the father. The Cuban government had a moral obligation to assist the father in recovering his son, who was for all intents and purposes, kidnapped. Instead of admiring the father’s courage and determination, we excoriated him, and cast aspersions on the Cuban government’s intentions in assisting him.

Every day, we send illegal immigrants back to their countries. Many of the deportees seek political asylum from horrific, oppressive situations, and a few are in peril of their very lives. We don’t make many exceptions — we send these people away. We tell them they must follow the legal processes for emigration from their homelands and for immigration to our country before they will be welcomed. If Elian Gonzales had been a forty-year-old woman, his stay in the US would have been brief, with him likely being deported as an “undesirable.” However, Elian wasn’t undesirable — just the opposite, in fact. He was a cute little boy whose personal tragedy stirred our collective national parenting instinct to protect him. He was our poster-boy for adoption, a “Dondi” for the 1990’s. We were so intent on our own feelings, we lost sight of what we were doing to a man’s family.

And for that, I am ashamed. I hope some day the Gonzales family can find it in their hearts to forgive us.

Excuse me. I need to go hug my kids.


30 July 2001

“It is good to be without vices, but it
is not good to be without temptation.”
   - Walter Bagehot

I seem to be having trouble today with my attention span. It’s hard staying focused on a single activity for more than a few moments. Right now, even as I make these words on the page, I am edgy, thinking about the books on the shelves behind me, on the papers covering my desk, on whether or not I should light some incense, on whether I need more light in the room as I write, and even on whether there will be enough ink in my pen to finish out this thought. It’s taking every bit of nerve and grit I possess to not stop writing and go off to do something else.

This is the “monkey mind” at work—the unfocused, unstructured array of undifferentiated thoughts, coming across my consciousness, reminding me of everything other than the task at hand. It feels like temptation. It probably manifests itself as sin. There is no going into “flow” when the monkey mind is at work—there is only the constant craving for something new and different. It’s the same thing that fuels the desire to shop. I want a new thing, a better thing than I now have, a thing that will make me forget how dreadfully inept I am at what I’m trying to do.

Other writers must go through this—some more than others, but the thought must rise on occasion. 

Nobody talks about it, though. It’s like a dirty little secret we keep to ourselves, fearful that if we admit to it, our membership in the writing society will be revoked.

Excuse me. I have a pressing need to go do something else.


30 April 2001

"Whoever said we have only two beings
wrestling within has greatly underestimated
the number by a considerable amount."
    - Goethe

I don't underestimate how many beings are wrestling within me--the number is currently hovering somewhere between fifteen and twenty. This seems to be the maximum number of sentient beings I can sustain at any one time in my life, without becoming the crazy old coot you avert your gaze from while strolling through parks and public places. I generally try to limit my conversations with them to the privacy of my home, with only occasional slips before my family and a few trusted friends. These are people who are not likely to report me to the men in white coats when they observe me staring incredulously at "middle distance," carrying on heated debate with invisible combatants, or reaching out to touch somebody who obviously doesn't exist in the same dimension as I do.

Who are these creatures, and why are they taking up residence in my head, you ask?

They're the characters who populate my stories. As I've gotten better at writing them, they've gotten better (and more persistent) at sticking around after the story is finished, insisting I engage in meaningful dialogue with them, providing them with more insight than they were originally intended to have, and giving them more exposure than the mere few thousand words they are generally allocated in a single story.

I never minded giving these phantasms what they wanted, until Finch showed up. I needed a really nasty, totally unsympathetic villain for a story I wanted to write, and I conjured up Finch. He's rotten, through and through. He beat his wife, tormented his children, whored around, thumbed his nose at society, lied, cheated, and stole at every opportunity. Worst of all, though, Finch was thrilled to be a telemarketer. He made my skin crawl as I wrote him -- the way he acted, the things he said, the things he did -- he was completely repulsive. People who have read the story about Finch unanimously agree. He's horrible.

And now, he won't go away. He hovers at the edge of my consciousness like some demon waiting to show me the path to perdition, and more and more, I find myself oddly unable to ignore him. Finch has the ethics of a hyena, and the instincts of a salt water crocodile. He didn't survive the story I put him in, but he somehow managed to resist my attempts to purge him from my thoughts. I've even found myself welcoming telemarketing calls, just to see if the person on the other end of the line is as coolly calculating as Finch.

I'm interested in Finch, but at the same time, I fear his influence over me.

Excuse me. My telephone is ringing. It might be a cold call.


23 April 2001

"A man who is always ready to believe what
is told to him will never do well."
     - Gaius Petronius

I like living in the twenty-first century, with all the conveniences, labor-saving devices, and astonishing breakthroughs in technology and science. I'm a real fan of progress. I was first on my block to own an answering machine, a personal computer, a cell phone, a wireless PDA. Instant messaging rings my chimes. Really. I'm about as far from Luddite as Buck Rogers was from the Hubble Telescope. With one glaring exception. Automated telephone menus are the devil's own handiwork. I can't stand them. Let me explain.

I've just spent the past several hours trying to navigate a pen maker's automated menu. I have a pen the company stopped manufacturing about fifteen years ago. I am extremely fond of this pen. When I hold it, it feels like it's part of my hand. The pen can be fixed. I need a replacement part. I know how to make the repair. I am willing to pay good money to get what I need. I called the pen maker, sure this was going to be a simple, painless transaction. I was dead wrong.

At every turn, the pen maker's automated menu offered me choices, none of which got me close to a human being, or a replacement part for my pen.

When my digital enemy answered, it spoke to me in a pleasant enough woman's voice. "Welcome. This is the XYZ Pen Company. You are a valued customer. Please listen to the following to help us serve you better..." This is where the fun began. The menu options were laid out, but not one of them involved pen repair or replacement parts. The closest match was "Customer Relations," so I pressed "2."

The woman's voice, now less friendly, stated, "If this is a medical emergency, please hold the line, and a representative will be with you shortly. If you are calling about our premiere product line, press one. If you are calling about other products, press two. If you need to speak to a customer relations representative, press three."

My index finger hovered over the keypad as I considered the instructions. Since when do people calling pen makers for replacement parts find themselves in medical emergencies? And wouldn't somebody in a medical emergency be better off calling the hospital, before the pen maker? I pressed "3."

The sibilant, mechanical female voice spoke again. This time, she was terse and to the point. "All our customer relations representatives are answering other customer calls at this time. We do not know when a representative will be free to answer your call. There is no point in waiting. If you really feel the need to leave a message, please press one at the tone, and leave your name and number. Somebody will eventually get back to you." I pressed "1" and waited. And waited. When I finally tired of waiting for something to happen, I hung up. Did I mention this was not a toll-free number?

I figured there was a glitch in the system, so I decided to try again. Nobody has ever accused me of being a quitter. I called the pen maker eight times and went through the exact same series of events each time. Naturally, I invariably reached the same unsatisfying conclusion.

On my ninth and final attempt, I tried something different. Right at the start of the litany of call options, I pressed "0" and held my breath. I hoped I would bypass the menu and be switched directly to an operator. My only goal was to reach a human being who could answer my questions, take my credit card information, and ship me a new part.

The gambit was a success. I heard a faint clicking, a hum, and then a sweet, tentative, "Hello? May I help you?" coming from the other end of the line. I explained my problem to the soft-voiced, solicitous young woman. She said, "Oh, of course. You need a new part. Just let me connect you to a customer relations representative." Before I could stop her, I was switched away, and I heard the now-dreaded, "All our customer relations representatives are answering other customer calls at this time..."

I hung up, cursing the pen maker and the automated menu to eternal perdition.

Excuse me. I'm leaving now. I have to drive to the office supply store for a new pen.


21 April 2001

"A man of genius makes no mistakes.  His
errors are volitional and are the portals of
  - J. Joyce

I read the most interesting thing about journal writing recently. Virginia Woolf was commenting on how Ottoline Morrell kept a journal, but allowed as to how the journal was vastly different from her own, filled up as it was with Ottoline's writing about her inner life. The thought of this made Woolf stop and consider that when she got right down to it, she had no inner life herself. However, Woolf's diaries are filled to bursting with her observations of the world around her -- nothing escaped her keen artist's eye. She never skimped or flinched when laying out the patterns of social engagements, the people around her, or her travels through towns and countries. She treated a walk through Kensignton Gardens as seriously and with quite as much thoughtful attention to detail as she did an enormous dinner party in fancy dress, or a reception with a crowned head of state.

But the only places where we find inner life, if we can call it that, are when we read the stories she wrote. She projected everything she didn't find in herself, but found in others, onto her pages.

I think this is something every writer, every writer who's going to make it as a writer, that is, comes to terms with. There isn't nearly enough good fiction in the world, and part of the reason why is because we've been training our writers to look inward, rather than outward, and rewarding them accordingly. It's as if we have forgotten how to look at our heroes and villains and render them accurately with words. We've forgotten, too, how important it is when we create those characters to exaggerate the lines, extend the reach, endow them with the qualities and characteristics we want to find in ourselves.

Excuse me. I have a sudden desire to peer into a mirror.


18 April 2001

"Life is real!  Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal: ..."
     - H.W. Longfellow

I've been thinking about one of my dear friends. She and I recently had a conversation over coffee during which she groaned about her position, one that I had myself occupied several years ago. She has incentive options from her company, and she's praying for an IPO before she's burned to a crisp. She's been dealing with hundred-hour work weeks, sunrise to well past midnight most days, trying to make the IPO happen so she can cash in and go off to have the collapse she feels she earned. Now she says she's debating whether it's worthwhile for her to remain with the company, with the downturn in the general economy.

I asked, "What is it you want from a job?" She told me what she likes most is when she's allowed to "build something." She loves being able to bring people together in a team, but what excites her most is the potential for success. She said her ennui in a job begins to surface after the team moves into a performant state, and she itches for something new. She also said she no longer reports to the company founder, who recruited her.

There is a new vice-president on her horizon, who has half the company reporting to him. My friend commented that this new executive has introduced an unhealthy competitiveness into the company, pitting people against one another, rather than helping them team together. The executive has even made his presence known in the intramural volleyball league, a group that has been meeting for over a year for friendly fun after work. The new guy has so negatively affected the atmosphere, and ruined the sense of fun, that nobody enjoys the games, and actively look for reasons to not participate.

Her concern is that this executive brings a really cut-throat attitude into the company, a sort of "win at all costs" mentality. Her feelings toward this man are not good, because she's mistrustful of his motives and ethics. She says when things go wrong, he goes hunting for people to blame, and when things go right, he takes all the credit. She says her stomach hurts when she thinks about working with him, and accepting direction from him.

I think she needs to do is figure out why she's willing to remain. If it's because there is an enormous financial gain for her, then wonderful. If it's because she's getting extremely valuable career experience, wonderful. If it's because she wants to outlast a strong-willed predatory executive, terrible.

We drank our coffee, commiserated a bit, and in the end, I told her I hoped she'd be able to make a decision she can not only live with, but one that won't jeopardize her health, mental or physical. She thanked me for the advice, and then it was time to go. Nothing changed.

Excuse me. I need to find myself another cup of coffee.