Our Virtual Commonplace Book

commonplace:  noun, Archaic. A place or passage in a book or writing
noted as important for reference or quotation.

Findings from Our Work and Reading

Thursday
Sep082011

AUTOBIOGRAPHY: SELECTIONS FROM LETTERS RECEIVED

Oh, the things you find when you're cleaning out the basement. I found this, typed up on my old IBM Selectric typewriter, circa 1986 I'd say, back in the day when people still wrote letters, folded them neatly into envelopes, addressed them neatly, affixed stamps, and left them for the mail carrier to start the journey from wherever to wherever.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY: SELECTIONS FROM LETTERS RECEIVED

1.    Sorry for not writing, but there's not a hell of a lot happening.

2.    Howdy--sorry my reply has been delayed, no excuse I realize.

3.    I'm certain you wondered what the delay was & why I hadn't written.

4.    Sorry its taken me a while to write, I've been incredibly busy.

5.    Sorry to be late with this, but you probably weren't expecting a response anyway.

6.    BEFORE YOU BLOW YOUR TOP AT ME FOR NOT WRITING YOU BACK, PLEASE UNDERSTAND THAT I AM A LOWLY COLLEGE STUDENT STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE IN A JUNGLE OF TERM PAPERS AND MIDTERMS ONLY TO HAVE LIFE FURTHER COMPLICATED BY HAVING TO ANSWER LETTERS.

7.    If I can fill more than a page it'll be a miracle.

8.    Are you obsessed, crazed, feared, compulsed or otherwise nuts?

9.    (In other words, I'm finally capable of holding a pen again)

10.  I miss you, you screwball!

11.  My nights are filled with TV and food.

12.  This place is like a prison.

13.  I'M TURNING INTO A SLOB.

14.  I'm constantly stunned.

15.  My lunch is on my shirt.

16.  Well, for once I feel really motivated.

17.  everytime she hits me (she has a funny way of expressing her feelings) I get an erection.

18.  Just being my nasty self.

19.  Lack of effort was never one of my problems.

20.  These days I can't find the energy to get out of this situation and its looking worse every day.

21.  I'm still riding the wave---and "praying" that some resolution will occur.

22.  I've never seen a more beautiful body and I've seen a lot of naked women.

23.  Feeling a real need to reestablish priorities and head down a simpler, more "eternally-rewarding" path.

24.  America is beautiful. Give or take a few states.

25.  It's a grey evening outside and the trees and buildings are shrouded in a dim mist.

26.  I drank vodka, beer, punch, and Almaden. I got dragged & carried home by two close friends.

27.  The technology rips across the sky--AWAC planes, loud and fast--or the long, quiet nuclear subs that glide by far out towards the horizon.

28.  There's a bug flying around my pen, competing for attention--It's so tiny--and yet so demanding--time passes--the train arrives & I must journey onward.

29.  The truck stops are real fun and the bottomless cup of coffee is still going strong. I thought I died and went to cafeine heaven.

30.  A birthday gift is on the way--The post was closed when I dropped this off, so I'll have to wait until Monday to get this gift to you--

31.  I find that I am loving to derive my satisfactions and inspirations from the commonest events, every-day happenings--and so moments with friends, the work I choose to do, the activities I engage in--all seem to inspire me--and each moment that surrounds me is my 'far away heaven'--here--in the present moment.

32.  I'll relieve your mind, you're not the father, okay?

33.  ARE YOU MARRIED YET? ME NEITHER. OH WELL.

34.  So when are you getting married.

35.  By the way, I amputated most of my hair.

36.  Back to mundane reality for awhile. I got a PHONE today! Actually, I'm very excited about it. I feel almost human.

37.  Dan keeps playing around with the heat and we alternately freeze and cook.

38.  (My thoughts tend to skip around faster than my ability to make paragraphs).

39.  I trust you used your "vacation" wisely and managed to stop down for a visit to your "sweetie" and solidify a loving & growing relationship.

40.  There's nothing I could do to get fired. You're proof of that. After all I am an institution.

41.  We honestly can't stand each other.

42.  I told Stuart about your smashing success and his eyebrows stayed in the air for quite some time.

43.  From Poland? Is she serene and tortured like Sophie in Sophie's Choice?

44.  But seriously, I think it's very noble of you, stupid but noble.

45.  Has it warmed up yet on the East coast?

46.  Well I'm going off to my lonely bed now

47.  Love,

48.  See you someday

49.  Enjoy, Namaste,

50.  So much love,

51.  Take it easy,

52.  With love & thanks---

53.  All my love,

54.  Peace, love, and Woodstock,

55.  So much loving for you---

56.  Bye,

57.  See you soon,

58.  Much love---

 

Wednesday
Aug312011

Unstuck on "Facebook Reads Day"

Today is “Facebook Reads Day,” described as follows:

“On Wednesday, 31 August, change your profile pick for one day to the cover of the book you have chosen, and let's show our friends how important reading is for ourselves and our children and our community as well as how much fun and relaxing it is to trip through the pages one by one.”

I’ve chosen Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which I first read when I was about 16 and have revisited a number of times since. Here’s a piece I wrote about the novel about 11 years ago.

 

UNSTUCK

Combat

In the pre-cable television era, when I was growing up in the New York metropolitan area, TV consisted of seven channels. Of the seven, three were the major networks--channels 2, 4, and 7--and of those three, at least on our black-and-white TV, the ABC network was characterized by a consistently snowy, fuzzy appearance. We just never could get decent reception for channel 7 even when, in moments of extreme motivation, my father took to the roof to fiddle with the antenna.

Consequently we did not watch ABC as much as we did CBS and NBC. I never got into the old Adam West “Batman” series, for example, but kept close track of “The Monkees” over on NBC and the Smothers Brothers on CBS. One exception I can recall is the ABC series “Combat,” which introduced me to the Second World War.

I don’t remember much about the plot lines of the “Combat” episodes. I watched the show through that fuzzy snow that infected the picture tube, but, even so, I do recall the visuals: the frequent darkness and rubble of bombed-out buildings, the grey uniforms and heavy boots worn by the soldiers. The American G.I.s were rough looking and always seemed pretty well beat up, while the Germans had helmets with a shine to them and their uniforms always seemed to have been recently pressed. It was as if the Germans had been plucked from corporate offices somewhere and had a decided advantage over the hapless underdog Yanks.

Fortunately I was undergoing a period of compulsory education at the time, so I learned, by and by, that there was more to World War II than G.I.s speaking in hushed tones among ruined European buildings and always coming out okay (that is, as long as the actor’s name appeared in the opening credits). But it took more than education and entertainment to provoke me to think seriously about war and its consequences. And when I did come to think about all that, it was part of a spiritual deepening at a time that war, in its Vietnam incarnation, had the potential to shake my world directly.

Slaughterhouse-Five

I don’t know if Kurt Vonnegut has ever been accused of being a “spiritual writer,” but because I am (often despite my own best efforts) a “spiritual reader,” it was on that level that his Slaughterhouse-Five made a difference in my life.

I read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was sixteen years old, a few years after it was published. The war in Vietnam was winding down, but my understanding of the powers-that-be had already eroded my trust in political leaders. I had seen the sudden, false promise of a negotiated peace announced by Nixon’s campaign not long before his 1972 roughshod run over George McGovern. As I came closer to the draftable age of eighteen and the war continued to peter out, the Watergate scandal broke, and I could only imagine to what lengths the disgraced president might go to deflect attention from his close-to-home troubles. The hostilities were certainly re-ignitable, and I and millions of other young men were available fodder. Montreal looked more and more like a nice place to live.

At the time I was also pulling away from the church I had always attended and the God who was proclaimed there. If anyone had asked, I would have said I was an agnostic. But my sense of the transcendent (a word I doubt I understood at the time) was strong. I retained a faith, of sorts, in the idea that humans are rooted in some ineffable something about which I knew nothing but yearned to know all. In this context I was also developing a conscience about issues larger than lying to my parents or lusting after every other girl I passed in the school hallway.

I was a confused but hope-filled teenager, never satisfied with pat answers but with little direction as to how to find answers other than the pat ones.

I am not sure what prompted me to read Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut was in the news, I suppose; maybe I had seen him interviewed on PBS or on Dick Cavett’s intelligent talk show. But, somewhere along the line, I plunked down ninety-five cents for a copy of the Dell paperback edition of the book and proceeded to read. That same ragged copy is before me now on my disheveled rolltop desk. Judging by its broken spine, I must have read it more than once, but other than a pair of elliptical doodles on the front cover and my name scrawled inside, it is unmarked. I have never been one for writing in books, particularly those that are long on wonder and short on pat answers.

In the nearly thirty years since I first read Slaughterhouse-Five, I have thought about it often. It is a book that has never left me. It has, in its way, haunted me.

I have never forgotten that it begins like this:

Listen:

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

And that it ends:

“Poo-tee-weet?”

And in between, trying to get unstuck, I once again wander through time with Billy Pilgrim. It is as if I never left.

Anti-Glacier

Billy Pilgrim, in his seeming detached manner, walked me through his piece of World War II in a way I could not have stepped before. I came away from the novel with my infant anti-war sentiments fortified, even bordering on pacifism. Events like those described in Slaughterhouse-Five, I felt, should never visit the Earth again. I was undergoing what the liberation theologians might call a period of conscientization.

Vonnegut writes that he told a man he met that he was working on a book about the war, and that it would be an anti-war book. The man said, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?” Vonnegut relates that conversation on page three of the novel; the man’s cynicism, or realism, did not stop me from being changed by Billy Pilgrim’s encounters with violence, candles made from the fat of murdered Jews, the firebombing of Dresden, the numberless anonymous dead, and poor old Edgar Derby, summarily executed for rescuing a teapot from the rubble of the city.

Anti-glacier comments notwithstanding, I had seen nothing like this on “Combat.”

The Children’s Crusade

The subtitle of Slaughterhouse-Five is “The Children’s Crusade.” In his introductory chapter, Vonnegut explains that he was reminded by the wife of an old war buddy that “You were just babies in the war--like the ones upstairs!” She goes on to accuse him of wanting to write a book that ignores this fact. She tells him, “You’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”

Vonnegut responded by promising to call the book “The Children’s Crusade.”

I don’t know, for certain, how Vonnegut’s subtitle struck me at sixteen. At sixteen we resist thinking of ourselves as children; we are looking forward to putting on the garments of adulthood and something we call independence. I wonder if his point was lost on me.

As a kid, I knew just one guy who had fought in Vietnam. Robert was the oldest son of the family across the street. He was six or seven years older than me. He flew cargo and transport helicopters, sometimes in combat situations. He had never seemed like a child to me. To me, Robert was a full-fledged grownup, even when I was an elementary student and he was in high school. I remember his first car, a tiny red Metropolitan, parked on his parents’ front lawn, and how cool it was that he had a car of his own and that it was so different from all of the family cars on our street. It was one of the things that made him a grownup. I was in awe of him.

Robert went away to basic training at Fort Polk in Louisiana. He called it Fort Puke, Lousy Anna in his letters home--very adult humor to my middle school ears--and his letters from Vietnam were written in the tightly spaced, hard-to-read handwriting of a grown man. He came home after his tour of Vietnam and decided, against his parents’ wishes, to go back for a second tour, in exchange for a cutback in the number of years he had committed to the army. Everyone shook their heads over his choice, but he was, after all, an adult, and it was up to him.

With just a short time left in his second tour, his mother told us, shaking her head some more, that Robert had volunteered to fly a damaged helicopter quite a distance back to base--a risky job for which he received some kind of perk or other. His mother probably saw that choice as another example of youthful folly on Robert’s part, but to me it was one more indication that he was an adult who knew what he was doing.

“Children’s crusade”? By the time I read Vonnegut, when Robert had been safely home for a couple of years, maybe I grasped the subtitle’s irony. And maybe not. But war did seem a manly thing to me when I was growing up, and I probably have Sinatra, Wayne, and “Combat” to thank for that. Now, unstuck in time as I am, Sinatra and company appear in frames of memory beside the exuberant Robert and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC and photos of piles of murdered Jews. And these appear beside my present reality in which, as a father with a baby upstairs, “children’s crusade” strikes me as an accurate way to describe a war.

A Duty-Dance With Death

Robert, as I mentioned, came safely home from Vietnam. He accepted Jesus as his personal savior and hooked up with a community of young conservative Christians. He joined the National Guard. He was killed in a helicopter crash in upstate New York during one of his weekends of service. I heard a report of the crash on the local evening news the day it happened. No victims’ names were given, pending notification of relatives. But I knew deep down, when I heard the report, that Robert was dead.

As Vonnegut would say, So it goes.

Or more accurately, as the creatures of Tralfamadore would say, So it goes.

As Billy Pilgrim travels, unstuck in time, he spends many pleasant moments on display in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore. His Earthling companion in the zoo is blue-movie actress Montana Wildhack, whose titillating and tender presence lights up several moments in the novel. While being a sort of novelty act for the Tralfamadorians, Billy learns from them a new perspective on time. They don’t, for example, see the universe as “a lot of bright little dots.” Rather, they “can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti.” Humans, too, are seen from this perspective, “with babies’ legs at one end and old people’s legs at the other,” Shakespeare’s seven ages of man enacted in a visible unbroken thread.

Billy Pilgrim tells the world:

“The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exisit. . . .

“. . . Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’”

When he closes the talks he gives about Tralfamadore, Billy Pilgrim says “Farewell, hello, farewell, hello.”

Slaughterhouse-Five has a second subtitle: “A Duty-Dance With Death.” “No art is possible without a dance with death,” Vonnegut says, paraphrasing Céline. Not just art, of course--life itself is not possible without a dance with death, life itself is a dance with death. That is the one truth I have encountered again and again in the pages of great books and the on the canvases of great artists, in the teachings of the great religions and in the street scenes and country scenes I have passed through, and in the hard and tragic and joyful and easy moments of my life. It is a truth that Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim helped me prepare to live with.

Life is a dance with death, a necessary dance, a duty--we resist it at our own risk. I have learned to say “So it goes” when the moment demands--not because I have no tears to cry but because whatever has been “lost” is still there, as the Tralfamadorians would say, “in plenty of other moments,” and that “It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

The Serenity to Accept

I think Kurt Vonnegut introduced me to the Serenity Prayer. I am sure I could not have avoided it much beyond the age of sixteen in any case. Billy Pilgrim had a framed copy of the prayer on his office wall. It kept him going, he said. The prayer appears again, on Tralfamadore, engraved on a heart-shaped locket nestled between Montana Wildhack’s breasts. Over the years, of course, I have heard the Serenity Prayer again and again in many contexts, so much so that without even trying I have learned it by heart.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom always to tell the difference.

I have also learned that, rather than being a piece of anonymous wisdom, the Serenity Prayer is attributed to the famous Protestant German theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. You could look it up. Try Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

The Serenity Prayer is omnipresent in contemporary culture. Latter-day gurus and faddish teachers tell us to take control of our lives and our world. Rock stars and activists tell us to change and rearrange the world. But when I look at the middle of the Serenity Prayer--Courage to change the things I can--my unstuck mind recalls this apparently unrelated riddle:

“Why does a dog lick his balls?”

“Because he can.”

Maybe the prayer would be improved by the word “should”: To change the things I should. The world and its people might suffer less if we thought twice, and two thousand times, before changing things simply because we can.

But I am no famous theologian. Take what I say with a grain of salt. You won’t find it in Bartlett’s.

“Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change,” Vonnegut tells us, “were the past, the present, and the future.”

The Tralfamadorians do not believe in free will. “I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe,” a Tralfamadorian tells Billy Pilgrim, “and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

I still don’t know what to make of that--free will being such an essential element of Western philosophy and theology. Tralfamadorians, knowing they can’t change anything that has happened or will happen, simply ignore the horrible moments. “We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments--like today at the zoo. Isn’t this a nice moment?”

Nice or not, it is a moment in which my admiration for the Tralfamadorian concept of time diminishes. We have all met people like these Tralfamadorians somewhere along the line--the ones whose insistent focus on “the positive” is in reality just a smokescreen for their own fear of conflict, loss, anger, or making mistakes. Their own fear of taking part in the dance with death, to put it plainly. People such as these are the most dangerous ones, the most potentially destructive. They are like the Tralfamadorians, who know in advance that they are responsible for the end of the universe--“We blow it up, experimenting with new fuels for our flying saucers”--but believe they have no power to prevent it, and so immerse themselves in “pleasant moments.”

I suppose they would call that the wisdom to always tell the difference.

Farewell, Hello

My thirty-year-old copy of Slaughterhouse-Five is falling apart on my rolltop desk. So it goes. I think I will buy a new copy.

My seven-year-old baby is playing out in the driveway. His enthusiastic voice rises to and through my upstairs window. He already demonstrates a tremendous capacity for refusing to accept pat answers. I hear his toy laser gun as he pulls the trigger and obliterates an imagined but horrific enemy. He will save the world, he and his toy laser gun and space age battleships and children’s crusades.

I will buy a new copy of Slaughterhouse-Five. When my son is fifteen or sixteen I will place it in his way, just as it was somehow placed in my way, and hope that he will pick it up and read. And if he reads it, I hope that it deepens his appreciation of life and that he talks to me about it and that he takes the copy with him when he goes--farewell, hello--and reads it again a decade or two down the road.

 

 

Tuesday
Aug162011

Reinventing the Book?

I have to admit that I am both impressed and a bit taken aback by the labor-intensivity of preparing a traditional manuscript for ebook publication. Getting behind the scenes, so to speak, on this task explains a lot about badly presented text on the Kindle, and invites praise for those publishers who have gotten it right and done it well.

We are revising and preparing to republish a pair of books on grammar and vocabulary that Vicki wrote for Scholastic and its YA-age audience back in the 1980s. The books have held up well in terms of content and style, and I'm learning a lot by reinventing them for new formats and audiences. The dried-up and broken-spined copy that is my source is falling apart more and more each day, and I suspect by the time I am done it may float away like autumn leaves on a breeze. If all goes according to plan the books will be available in electronic formats and in paper, so perhaps in another 30 years someone else will convert them into even newer technology, say, implanting the text directly into the brain of the buyer.

I needed a break from the details and minutiae. I have taken it. Now back to work.

Friday
Jul292011

The Truth about Myself

Rosanne Cash, author of the acclaimed memoir Composed, is almost as well known these days, it seems, for her TwitterFeed as for her songs. I would never trade the tweets for the songs, not in a million years, but I took notice today when Ms. Cash tweeted:

If you will please go to a bookstore, do some guerilla marketing for me & front load my memoir, I will send you each a pony. #Thanks

I don’t get out to bookstores as often as I’d like these days, but I admit I have been known to rearrange shelves to favor books and authors that I’m enthusiastic about. I don’t need a pony, but here’s a link to Composed, now out in paperback, and a little sample to get you started.

 

The word “contrition” comes from the Latin word for “bruise” or “grind,” a derivation that makes perfect sense to me as a former Catholic. Something in the drone and rhythm of the Act of Contrition—“Through my fault, through my most grievous fault . . . ,” which I said to a man behind a screen in a dark confessional booth for so many years—was uniquely compelling. It took me many years to realize it wasn’t my fault, or even my grievous fault, however much I was drawn in by the swing of the words and the safe intimacy of confession. What all those anxiously droned Acts of Contrition chiefly accomplished was to break me down, bruising my sense of self permanently. Or so I thought. In any case, they had the immediate effect of making me withdraw from the truth about myself for a very long time. The truth about me, as it turned out, was unacceptable not only to Catholicism but to adults in general. The truth about me was not meant to fit into the system of convent school, religion, contrition, or punition. None of that mattered. I was a writer. It would save me. (page 59, hardcover edition)

Tuesday
Jul262011

Proofreading for Pleasure?

It's always nice when a project I am proofreading turns out to be a book I would be very likely to read even without being paid for it.

In this case the book is a novel entitled One More River by Mary Glickman, published by Open Road Integrated Media.

It is not even listed at Amazon yet, but the author's previous novel, Home in the Morning, can be found at Amazon's Mary Glickman page. I suspect that I will be purchasing a copy, most likely of the Kindle edition, in the near future. (Unless the publisher would like to send me the paperback, of course.) In both novels Glickman writes about Jews in the American South. One More River tells the tale of Mickey Moe Levy, and forebears, from the early 20th twentieth century to the Vietnam War era.

I won't say much here because I really want to get back to work on it. I mean, I love beating deadlines but I also really want to know what's going to happen next...

Later!

[Update, October 6: One More River is now available for pre-order at Amazon (click on image below) or at Open Road.]