Category Archives: Just for Fun

Posts that are not intended to be taken too seriously

Ode to Zibaldone

Scribbling. All it takes is a margin of an agenda paper or the back of an envelope. I don’t remember when I started doing it—I’ve been writing my own blend of fiction, facts, and philosophy since I was in elementary school—but I would find a relatively clean piece of paper, fold it up, and put it in my pocket. I’ve carried a pen around with me for decades. Why? You never know when an idea might strike. There’s nothing like the discovery of a new idea. Lifelong learning is like that. So it was when I was reading Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events to my daughter that I learned about commonplace books. A commonplace book is a notebook where you jot all kinds of things down and you know where they are, unlike that piece of paper in my pocket that long ago started to rip apart at the folds, the ink becoming illegible as the paper grew softer and more pliable. A commonplace book seemed like a great idea.

This all came back to me when a friend send me a story on zibaldones. I’d never read the word before. A zibaldone, according to the story by Cara Giaimo on Atlas Obscura, is an Italian commonplace book. They used to be part of every thinking person’s accoutrements. A blank book where you could write down anything of importance. Giaimo suggests that the internet has taken the place of the zibaldone—blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest—we’re spoiled for choice where to put our thoughts. I still carry a commonplace book, however. Too many, in fact. Next to my writing chair rests a stack of notebooks. There’s one for each non-fiction book I’ve written, whether published or not. There are several filled with fiction. Some with poetry. My most recent zibaldones are Moleskines, which I purchased—as many as I could afford—when Borders sadly went out of business. Ideas. They just keep coming.

Some of my notebooks.

Some of my notebooks.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the zibaldone is that, if one survives, an historian gets a glimpse at what someone who was not famous saw. Observations about the world scribbled down. The most proficient of scribblers organized their commonplace books in advance. As for me, I still scribble things on scraps of paper. I carry a notebook and pen at all times, but sometimes an idea is so slippery I don’t have time to pull a formal zibaldone from my pocket. I tape scrapes of paper into my notebooks. Right next to new words I’ve learned. Somewhere among today’s scribbles you’ll find the word zibaldone along with the hope that some day some of this might be significant.

An Anatomy of Lies

I had an email from Mike Pence. Mike Pence doesn’t know me from Adam, but if he met me he surely wouldn’t like me. His email tried to explain, in tottering logic, why he voted for Betsy DeVos. When I finished wiping the vomit from my mouth, I began to think about someone America needs again: Mark Twain. I’d just been reading about some of Twain’s classics and I recalled his famous quip (which he attributed to Disraeli): “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” We now live in an era so surreal that it requires a fourth kind of lie: alternative facts. Government communications are full of them. Not one word from the White House can be trusted with the common decency that you’d attribute to a Boy Scout innocently helping an elderly person across the street. One hand is held out for you to shake while the other is picking your pocket.

The volume of the lies has grown louder. I’m sorry Nigel Tufnel, but this amplifier goes up to twelve. Some time back I blogged about the overuse of superlatives. When everything’s the ultimate, nothing’s the ultimate. We need a new anatomy of lies to apply to our Addamsesque government. Since the only people who believe in Hell are the ones who elected Hell’s own party to the White House, you can’t even tell them where to go any more. There was a day when telling someone to go to Hell brought real consternation. These days all you have to do is buy a ticket to the District of Columbia. People listened to Mark Twain. Here was an educated southerner who told the truth, no matter how fictionalized. Truth no longer exists, and I should just get over it. Problem is, the country I was born in now only supports the rich and I can’t afford to live in a cardboard box.

We all know what a lie is. If we’re honest we’ll all admit to telling one once in a while. All humans do. Damned lies are those we used to condemn. The exegesis of the word “damned” these days is perhaps euphemistic for “good for government.” Statistics, as 99 percent of people know, are made up. Then come “alternative facts.” Even after being called out repeatedly for making things up, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, and now even Mike Pence, continue to rationalize their own reality.

Mr. Clemens, what do you call fabricated detritus so filthy that “lie” is hardly adequate to make an impact in its dense, brown verbiage? The kind of thing we might expect from an individual incapable of distinguishing truth from fantasy? Don’t take it personally, Mike, but I’ve assigned you to my SPAM list. You’ve just been made an alternative fact in my personal reality. How’d you even get my email address? Mark Twain may have been a pen name, but his fiction was fact. He was a man ahead of his time.

Image source: Qwertyxp2000, Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Qwertyxp2000, Wikimedia Commons

I’m Saying Nothing

It used to be called argumentum e silentio, the argument from silence.  It didn’t take very long into my post-graduate reading to learn that arguments from silence were very rarely admitted in the academy as any kind of evidence at all.  In fact, argumenta e silentio are generally considered a logical fallacy.  The idea is fairly simple: an argument from silence is when a source (often an ancient one) doesn’t mention something.  That lack of mention is sometimes used to argue for the absence of the thing not mentioned.  For example, some first century writers in the region of Roman Palestine did not mention Jesus of Nazareth.  This has led some to suggest that Jesus never existed.  The evidence is an absence of evidence on the part of certain important historical figures.  There are obviously lots of problems with this.  I’m a modern person and there are plenty of people I never write about.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t know who they are (although in my case, it might!).
 
Why am I concerned about arguments from silence?  Lately I’ve noticed quite a few scholarly tomes coming out on the topic of silence.  I’m not referring to Susan Cain’s excellent Quiet, but to scholarly monographs that explore the silence in ancient texts about certain subjects.  In my more curmudgeonly moments, I feel that perhaps when we have nothing left to explore but what a text doesn’t say maybe we’ve explored that text enough.  Younger scholars, casting about for something new to say about the Bible, look to what ancient sources don’t say to give them a research topic.  Back in my own academic days you’d receive a stout scholarly rap upon the pate for even including an argument from silence in your thesis.  Now you can write entire books about what someone didn’t say.  What’s more, you’ll likely find a publisher.
 
I’m at times a bit fearful for the future.  Although my academic work approached the Bible critically it wasn’t because I didn’t like or didn’t respect the Bible.  Hey, it’s far more famous than I’ll ever be, and in fact, more people have heard of it than have even heard of Trump with his endless tweets. No, the Bible is an endlessly fascinating book.  It’s just that if you can’t find something to say about it, why write about what ancients didn’t say?  Maybe it’s time to move on to a sacred text that hasn’t been probed for a couple of millennia.  I have no vested personal interest in this, having been excluded from the academy by biblical literalists and having had the rest assent to that decision by silence.  Ah, but there’s the rub.  That phrase, by the way, doesn’t occur in the Bible.  I wonder if that’s significant.

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System Reboot

I think Steve Bannon has already taken over my computer. How else can I explain everything stopping in the middle of a word, fingers flying, building up to some rhetorical flourish and suddenly the screen goes blank. Windows that I’d forgotten I had open reappear only to shut down. A brief message appears telling me that an “update” is being installed. I don’t mind do I? After all, it’s the middle of the night. Who’s watching in the middle of the night? We all know who the real president is, but why he’s interested in my muddled musings is anybody’s guess.

You see, I live a regimented life. You have to when your bus arrives before 6 a.m. I crawl reluctantly from my bed at 3:30 for one purpose only—to write. The commute and work take about 14 hours of the 24 I’m allotted every day, and I’m told that 8 of the remaining should be for sleeping. That doesn’t leave much time. So I skimp on the dozing part and get up to scribble my thoughts when, traditionally, demons are a-prowl. I need my computer to be with me on this. Kind of difficult to post on a blog without it. Not that I enjoy my early morning violence to the soft fabric of dreamland. My fellow early morning commuters know what I mean. Every day there’s a car just pulling up to some bus stop as the driver’s put on his blinkers, indicating he’s pulling out. I know some folks roll out of the bed, into the shower, and onto the bus. Some continue their sleep on the bus. I can’t blame them. I’m Manichaean about my day. It’s either asleep or awake. I don’t nap, so I need to write when I’m most awake. Just after 3:30 a.m.

How do I know it’s Steve Bannon? It’s only a guess really. I’ve heard that Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates keep a piece of opaque tape over the camera of their laptops. Why anybody’d want to see a confused, morning-headed, middle-aged guy with his mouth hanging open, wondering what’s just happened to the blog post he was writing is beyond me. But then I’m no expert in national security. In this year of 1984 we’re all threats to the powers that be, I guess. Thing is, I can’t remember what I wanted to say once the laptop restarts half an hour later. And that’s probably the point.

Image credit: Nirwrath, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Nirwrath, Wikimedia Commons

Monks and Keys

Whoever doesn’t understand that something being free doesn’t mean people won’t buy it is pleasantly naive. I write this as someone who once worked for a publisher who routinely sold books that were reprints of material freely available online, where you could print out a PDF at very little cost. Being a bibliophile, however, I understand the sickness that makes one want to purchase a printed, bound book form of what you might otherwise get for nothing. One of the gifts under the tree that I can’t wait to explore thoroughly is the print form of Atlas Obscura. I found the website (where the contents of the book are free) through a friend and although I have little free time, a fair amount of it when it does occur, is spent on this website. The same friend recently sent me an entry I’d missed about a town in Austria that is looking to hire a professional hermit. Wait. What? Hermit for hire? This raises so many questions that it’s worth the three minutes it would take to read the post.

Perhaps oddly, the offer from Saalfelden is strangely compelling. Apparently the competition for the post is considerable. Here I sit with a laptop in front of me, happily married, a family man, and thinking about a hermitage. As my family can attest, I still display monastic tendencies even in a somewhat conventional life. The concept of self-denial was strongly instilled in me during my youth. That means that many of the things I like the most I very seldom have. I rise early and go to bed early and eat plain food in a cheerless cubicle at work. I may as well have taken a vow of silence for as little as I say on any given work day. Where is Saalfelden anyway?

stanthony

No, I don’t really have what it takes to be a monk. There is, however, much about the self-denying lifestyle that recommends itself during this era of extreme self-absorption. There is much to be commended about thinking of others before yourself. As an ideal it is to be welcomed and applauded. In application it’s tougher than it sounds. I can’t walk across Manhattan without having to assert my desire to hurry along to work over the needs of those sleeping on the streets without getting paid for it, or even those who amble along on obviously painful legs and feet. Perhaps a cave in a mountain is s spiritual retreat, but it can also be a way of hiding from the needs of the world. There is a balance here and self-serving can take many forms. Even in a cave, the needs of the world require our thoughtful attention. Some of us just aren’t cut out to be monks.

Samaritans, Good and Otherwise

It’s the coldest day of the winter so far. I’m noticing this because I’m standing on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike counting the NJ Transit buses that are flying by at highway speed. It’s been a morning of irony so far, which explains why I’m standing out here instead of sitting inside the broken down, but still warm bus right next to me. I felt the cold while waiting at quarter to six for my bus to show up. Thankfully on time. It’s very empty this morning; I’m maybe the fourth passenger. Somewhere along Route 22, miles later, the bus gives a distress cry. Ironically, the engine is hot. The temperature outside is in the single digits. Also ironically, the radio on our bus isn’t working, so the driver has to call dispatch on his smart phone. Meanwhile, the engine cools down enough for him to try it again. We’re fine until we pass exit 15 on the Turnpike.

While I try to think of others before myself, I sit near the front of the bus—the first or second row. That way when it’s time to get off I don’t have to wait for dozens of people to wake up, stretch, and slowly shamble into the aisle. (If you think that’s an exaggeration, you don’t commute by NJ Transit.) “The first shall be last,” the Good Book says, and I believe it. I lost count of how many of the company’s buses have zoomed past, but when one finally stops, I’m person number 8 off the bus. The Good Samaritan driver stops me outside his bus. “Sorry, no more seats. No more standing room.” No room in the inn. My driver urges the long line behind me to get back on the bus, where it’s warm, to wait. I was first, now I’m last. That’s why I’m standing out here in the cold. As I approach the bus I see all the first several rows are filled by those first back on the disabled bus. They will be the first to be offered a ride by the next driver along this road to Jericho.

winter

The guy behind me, now in front of me, comes to the same conclusion and waits outside too. At least we both have beards. I’m thinking of Jesus’ words about the end of the world. “Pray it won’t come in winter.” Out here, all prayers are frozen. At least thirty NJ Transit buses buzz by creating their own wind chill before another stops. I want to be first because I paid more for my ticket than those who sat further back on my bus. In fact, I could rent a small apartment in many places in the country for what I pay a year for a bus pass. I wonder if that’s what it means that the first shall be last. Or maybe my brain’s just frozen, since it’s the coldest day of the winter so far.

Size Does Matter

While not exactly a Luddite, my grasp on technology is tenuous. I grew up in what may be the last generation where computer use was considered optional—I made it through a master’s degree without ever using one, and could have managed my doctorate without. Like many of 1960s vintage, I resisted computers at first, somehow believing that the status quo ante would ante up and resist the technobabble that was already beginning to bubble just beneath the surface. I never really had a clear idea what a byte was, or how a simple 0 or 1 could be used to convey complex information. I heard about “blogs” but had no idea what they were. Next thing I know I found myself writing one. To my way of thinking any kind of log is essentially a “once a day” thing, although I know bloggers who post remorselessly all day long. At the beginning I was confused until a friend gave me some advice: don’t write too much in any one post. Keep entries down to about three to five paragraphs, and between 300 and 500 words. That way, he intimated, people will look at it.

Recently, wondering why amid the millions and millions of pages available on the web, mine gets so few hits, I read something by an “industry analyst.” (That phrase makes me shudder, but this is no place to be squeamish.) Want more hits? he provocatively asked, followed by—here are the tips. One of his first bits of advice was write longer. At least three times longer than I do (1,500 word minimum). I don’t know about you, but I often think of such things in holistic terms. That’s a lot of words to ask someone to read. If you’re going to put that much together, you’d better have something really profound to say. You’re asking for an investment.

Those of you who know me will understand that multiplying words is not an issue. In addition to this blog I write both fiction and non-fiction books and stories (the vast majority of which have never been published). I answer a simple question with a 50-minute lecture. In other words I have other words. I just tend not to think that you necessarily want to read them all at once (or at all). It’s obvious that size does matter. I can’t help being disappointed when I open a post and find I haven’t the time to read it because it’s just too long. Life’s not fair in its allotment of time. As usual, I err on the side of caution. I value your time to take up too much of it here.

Image by Scarlet23, Wikimedia commons

Image by Scarlet23, Wikimedia commons