Friday, July 30, 2010

The Journal of John Woolman

(Not an actual photo of John Woolman)

In spite of my history with the Friends movement, I hadn't even heard of John Woolman until comparatively recently. So, for the sake of those out there who may, likewise, not know of him, John Woolman was a Quaker in New Jersey (although often traveling) in colonial America in the generation following William Penn.  Pretty much contemporary with Ben Franklin, although slightly shorter lived. Indeed, one of Woolman's original tracts appears to have been printed by Franklin's press. Perhaps the most notable aspect of Woolman's life to most historians is that he was one of the earliest abolitionists. He seems to have started as an advocate of teaching slaves to read (and people freaked out!) but then moved on to trying to convince slave-holding Friends that owning slaves was inconsistent with Christianity (and people freaked out!) He spent most of his life attempting to convince other Friends of the cause and, indeed, Quakers are known as the first religious movement in America to officially take an anti-slavery stand. John Woolman was instrumental in effecting that outcome. 

In fact, he also travelled to England to speak on the matter to Quakers over there. I have no evidence of any direct influence, but it is possibly worth noting that John Woolman was in London, influencing the religious community against slavery, about eight years before William Wilberforce entered Parliament. Thomas Clarkson was in communication with the Quakers over the abolition of the slave trade and they expressed their belief in the need for a voice in Parliament, so it's not out of the question to suggest that this lowly tailor/shopkeep from Jersey may have directly influenced the actual (albeit eventual and long after his death) abolition of the slave trade. I would also add as a historical point of trivia, the circle kind of completes itself in that William Wilberforce did travel to Paris early in his career and meet Benjamin Franklin. There you go.  Trot that little tidbit out at your next cocktail party.

While the journal deals largely with these efforts, I would say that the overall theme or message of John Woolman's Journal is that of Christian integrity, which is to say making sure that Christ's love, grace, and compassion is reflected in all aspects of  life. Be it your money, your social life, your opinions, even your clothing, do all to the glory of God and loving your neighbor. None of this is taken in a legalistic direction. He doesn't tell you what you should and shouldn't wear or how to speak or what to do when. Quite the contrary, he seeks to do everything out of love, grace, and compassion. He shares his own convictions and how he came to hold to them. He is not prescribing a set of actions. He's advocating a way of seeing. He seeks to apply those principles (love, grace, and compassion) to every aspect of his life and, I think, comes away with a sort of "Whole Christian" lifestyle where one does not leave loving God and one's neighbor at the door no matter what one does. In modern terms, it might be called Social Justice or Social Works, but it pours out from the abundance of the heart. He meditates on everything through that filter and seeks to be diligent in his Christian integrity. It is a remarkable book and one that I think will turn out to be a tremendous influence on me.

Of course,Woolman readily identified the institution of slavery as inconsistent with Christianity. (Strangely enough in hindsight, when he would confront Quakers who owned slaves, he would often argue from the standpoint of being against sloth, laziness, and profiting off of the labor of others.) But it doesn't nearly end there. He had a heart for the Native Americans and would travel to meet with them to attempt to extend Christian love to them. It was a fruitful endeavor and, in some of the most tender passages of the book, he was able to extend a hand of loving-kindness to a group who were treated with great injustice. 

It's probably worth noting that the Friends movement is traditionally pacifist and there is some talk about refusing to pay war taxes. (This is back when they had specific taxes, not one big lump of "Taxes" which could pay for things you find essential and good as well as those you find abominable and evil)  It is probably also worth noting that we are talking about the French and Indian War where Great Britain, back when they were Empiring out all over the place, fought the French and Native Americans on North American soil.  Woolman does not leave his Christianity at the door in reference to the war.

Woolman talks about the rum business which on the front end was entirely from the labor of slaves and, on the other end, often used to exploit the Native Americans who were forced from their land to scramble for pelts in different and difficult areas, only to have rum heavily pushed on them when they traded them to the European Imperialists (which am us).  He writes, "Where cunning people pass counterfeits and impose on others that which is good for nothing, it is considered as wickedness; but for the sake of gain to sell that which we know does people harm, and which often works their ruin, manifests a hardened and corrupt heart, and is an evil which demands the care of all true lovers of virtue to suppress."

He may as well be writing about contemporary America!  He may as well be writing about what brought about our current economic collapse!

Woolman understands the concept of "casting your economic vote" with every dollar you spend and endeavors to be conscientious, frugal, and a good steward in every way possible in what he purchases. "It had been my general practice to buy and sell things really useful. Things that served chiefly to please the vain mind in people, I was not easy to trade in; seldom did it; and whenever I did I found it weaken me as a Christian."

He lived very modestly. When he went to England, he traveled in steerage with the sailors instead of the more luxurious passenger areas. He even got a Quaker meeting going on the boat.

He also gives strong arguments against cruelty to animals. "I believe where the love of God is verily perfected, and the true spirit of government watchfully attended to, a tenderness towards all creatures made subject to us will be experienced, and a care felt in us that we do not lessen that sweetness of life in the animal creation which the great Creator intends for them under our government."

He also talks about the divide between the wealthy and the poor. He talks about the virtue of living modestly and of the rich seeking to elevate the poor while condescending in their own luxury for the sake of equality. I especially appreciated this part. "And here luxury and covetousness, with the numerous oppressions and other evils attending them, appeared very afflicting to me, and I felt in that which is immutable that the seeds of great calamity and desolation are sown and growing fast on this continent!" (emphasis mine)  And this was in the 1760s!  He may just as well be speaking about modern America. Indeed, I think we are currently reaping the fruits of those seeds of great calamity and desolation that Woolman saw planted in the early days of our nation. In fact, this was even pre-Revolution.

In a section that may seem a bit quaint to modern readers, he talks about the wearing of clothes with dyes that are harmful to the garment. At first I thought he was speaking in metaphor, but then he gives an account of people who questioned him when he started wearing non-dyed clothes, worrying that he was just being eccentric. I came to understand that he was talking about good stewardship with one's money as the dyes in question were for the sake of good looks (vanity) and that they weakened the articles of clothing in some capacity. He also mentions, spiritualizing it a bit, that the dyes hide dirt and he was really uncomfortable with that. He wanted to be genuinely clean, not just to give the appearance of being clean.

I think there is also a lesson in here about one's position in life, never underestimating where Providence has placed you, and being diligent in the Good Work of this world. He mentions at one point in his young life he may have liked "something greater" than the life of a tailor/store-clerk, but that he contented himself with the happiness found in humility. It struck me because he wrote those words in the 1740s and here I was reading his words in 2010.

One of the sadder parts of the book is a short section where he mentions in passing some qualms he had over the smallpox vaccine. He had seen some die from the vaccine. (He wrote that particular passage about 2 years after the death of Jonathan Edwards which he undoubtedly would have heard about.  Edwards, as you well know, died due to complications from his smallpox inoculation.)  Woolman says that he expects that scientific advances would, in his opinion, advance against the disease and would more likely make inoculation safer as time went on.It did.  In fact, the vaccine eventually eradicated the disease from the  world.  Unfortunately for Woolman, he did not get to experience the benefits of the vaccine.  He died quite suddenly of smallpox on his journey in England.

I would highly highly highly recommend this book to everyone. Of the three books of virtue I've recently gone through (Franklin's Autobiography, Penn's Some Fruits of Solitude, and now this), this was by far my favorite. I would venture a guess that it may end up being the most influential on me as well.

Reading Group Reminder- Oedipus Rex

I have decided here and after to forego the customary week's break in between books in our reading group  for a number of reasons.  One is that if we cut the break, we might finish this book series by the end of this year!  Another is that I have serious doubts that anyone will object.  Another is that I want to read it now and it's my reading group, so I can do what I want.

Also, I think we're going to read all of Oedipus Rex in one week.  It's only 79 pages and it's script dialogue which tends to read very quickly (you could probably read it in one evening.  The rule of thumb in script writing is to estimate about one minute per page, so you can liken it to the running time of the average movie.  If you have time for a movie this coming week, you have time for this.)  I think we read bigger chunks in our Jane Eyre reading, so I think we can handle it.  So, if you would like to join in our reading group (which I would recommend to everyone), read Oedipus Rex and meet back here at the end of next week to discuss.

Here's a song about Oedipus Rex by Tom Lehrer.

Reading the Classics with Paul- Pride and Prejudice Finale

Three more books and you will have completed the 10 Essential Penguin Classics list with me!

Wickham and Lydia fulfilled their usefulness to this section of the narrative and exit.  Knowing them, they'll be back when they need money.

Mr. Bingley comes down to visit the Bennet house with Mr. Darcy.  Of course, Mr. Bennet doesn't know that Darcy was his benefactor in getting Wickham to marry Lydia.  The unspoken important character arch revealed in this section seems to be Mr. Darcy complete turn around over the Bingley-Jane coupling.  Some critics have remarked on what appears to them to be a quick change in Mr. Darcy from snot to someone we're supposed to see as a hero.  I disagree.  I think we see his gradual change throughout. 

We've just observed, in the preceding chapters, Elizabeth's character arch which brought her to a point where she would find marriage to Mr. Darcy a completely agreeable notion.  With the Bingley-Jane connection, we see what may well be the last major obstacle removed to complete tranquility for us, the reader, in the Darcy-Elizabeth marriage.  It is not, however, the last obstacle for the characters, but now we should have our own qualms wiped away, leaving us to root for them through the remaining obstacles to come.  Everyone's happy over the Bingley-Jane match and everything is drawing to an agreeable close until one morning when a carriage arrives with that awful Lady Catherine riding in it, carrying a stocking full of pride and prejudice with which to beat Elizabeth. 

It, uh, doesn't go well for her. 

She came to confirm what she's heard about Darcy intending to marry Elizabeth and then to bully Elizabeth out of it (she claims that she is not to be trifled with.  A phrase that always makes me want to exclaim that I am decidedly to be trifled with.  I've never met a trifle I didn't like.  I shudder to think what Lady Catherine would think of me as, I should think, all good children should.)  Elizabeth stands up for herself, which is often the best course of action with a bully, and also, I would think, is yet another sign of Elizabeth's character being ripe for adulthood. I think this may have been my favorite part of the book.

I did not picture Lady Catherine looking like the lady in the woodcut at the beginning of this post.

Mr. Collins sends another letter to remind us that he is still a churlish boor.  When Mr. Darcy next comes visiting and reasserts his proposal or, at least, indicates that his mind has not changed since last he proposed.  This time, Elizabeth accepts.  The last obstacle is not one I'd anticipated earlier in the story, which is to say Jane and Mr. Bennet, both of whom do a spit take at the news and need reassurance that this is Elizabeth's will.  Elizabeth reveals that Mr. Darcy is the one who helped in the Wickham affair.  Mrs. Bennet reacts as only Mrs. Bennet can; in this instance it is kind of sweet and funny.

They wed and appear to live happily ever after.  Everyone is content aside from Wickham remaining mildly annoying and a bit leechy.  Lady Catherine gets over herself after a time, completing the circle of people being better, happier people once they get over their pride and prejudice.

I hope you enjoyed this book as much I have.  The next book in our reading group is Oedipus Rex by Sophocles.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Franklin Virtue Project Update

I love doing projects!  So, I'm working through Benjamin Franklin's list of virtues.  As I mentioned, Ben Franklin had a list of 13 virtues and he made a chart whereby he observed himself in relation to these virtues each day, casting a critical eye on his daily behavior for the purpose of personal growth.  Each week he worked on a specific virtue (written at the top of the list), but also paid attention to all the rest each day.  The idea was to attempt to master all of them by the end of the 13 weeks.  Franklin himself admitted that he thought it impossible and that he knew he did not perfect them himself, but he still maintained that it was a great and profitable project for anyone to undertake.  His chart looked like this:

The little black marks are where he stumbled that day.

I decided that it sounded like a worthy project and, agreeing that his 13 virtues are all agreeable to me, qualities toward which I would like to aspire, I undertook the project of using the chart on myself. While we were in Sacramento, I made 13 charts for myself in my Tony Millionaire's Sock Monkey Journal that I take with me where ever I go.

Week One was Temperance (which I do fairly well with. It's temperance not just in drinks, but also in food.  In spite of what my appearance might suggest, I've actually made great progress in moderating my diet.)  It was also the week when we went to Sacramento and looking back at the end of the week I was alarmed at how poorly I'd done in the Frugality column. In retrospect I think it may have been circumstantial (we ate out for almost every meal in Sacramento out of necessity.)  OR, as Franklin suggests, awareness may have curbed my behavior. The latter explanation makes this whole exercise sound more effective, so let's go with that. This week, however, back into my usual life circumstances, I find that Tranquility is my most often checked column and, undoubtedly an enviable virtue to possess, something I would do well to work on maintaining at all times.

This week is Silence which, on the surface, those who know me in person might think I am a master, but it mainly speaks to idle, trifling, or even worse, harmful conversation. This comes just after Pastor Walt preached from the Epistle of James on bridling the tongue. It may be worth noting the order. I have found that a breach in Temperance, even in drinking too much coffee, can lead to a breach in Silence, giving trifling, superfluous, and even harsh conversation. So we see a domino effect in self-control. As Socrates reportedly said,
"False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil."
As a side note, the final virtue in the list is Humility, and Franklin gives the exposition "Imitate Jesus and Socrates." Which I nodded over with a knowing, contented smile at first, but after about two days of the project I realized I was really hazy on what Socrates was like. I hadn't read one lick about Socrates in about a decade. Off I toddled to my beloved library and planted my nose in Plato (it's okay. Everyone knows Plato is non-toxic.) Our only records of Socrates come from the writings of his disciples (although there is also a parody of Socrates in Aristophanes' play The Clouds where he is portrayed as sort of a dirty charlatan and a thief. Soren Kierkegaard believed Aristophanes' lampooning of Socrates was probably a more accurate representation of the man than the writings of his disciples. It may be true that there is sometimes more truth is in parody than in starry eyed admiration, but that assertion takes a darker turn when one realizes that Aristophanes' play may very well have played a major role in swaying the public opinion to the point of the real Socrates' execution. It is possibly also relevant to remind readers that Kierkegaard came about two generations after Ben Franklin and that Kierkegaard's assertion was both novel and a bit shocking. So Franklin would not have given the Aristophanes representation a moment's worth of serious consideration in this matter. If pressed for my own opinion, I really would prefer to think that Socrates was as Plato and Xenophon described. Anyway, for my purposes here, it's more a helpful figure to look toward.)

I assume what Franklin meant was the Socratic ideal that virtue is its own reward, more valuable than wealth, and, in fact, possibly the meaning of life. That last sentiment I can only accept coupled with the admonition to attempt to imitate Jesus as well, whose teaching takes it to the next level of the meaning of life being glorifying God and that virtue springs from a heart inclined in that direction. As John Woolman puts it, "wisdom from above which leads to a right use of all gifts, both spiritual and temporal."  In both cases, I imagine Franklin is arguing, they were willing to follow the path of virtue even unto death. While Franklin and I have very different points of view on Jesus, I appreciate his point in reference to this specific exercise.

I think at the end of this project, self-awareness and diligence will be the fruits. I should probably add that it is not my intention to pound a bass drum of how nifty I am (lest I get a cold prickly in my Humility column) in reporting on this project.  Rather I think that this is something people should do.  I think we ought to be self-aware and, thereby, foster self-control.

As Socrates reportedly said,
"The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being."
I plan on reporting back when my experiment is complete, but I also have more to say on this topic in my upcoming post about John Woolman.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

on eBooks

As I mentioned yesterday, I thought I might take a few moments and speak more directly on the topic of eBook readers. This is a hot topic at the moment in the worlds of publishing, reading, literature, blogging, newspapers, bookstores, etc.  I am often asked, because I've been in the book business for the past seven years, what I think of them and, especially, if I believe that "publishing is dead" in any capacity.

Up until the Kindle, I never took eBooks seriously. The main objection leveled against them by the reading public is that staring at a lighted screen for hours on end is hard on the eyes. Staring at pages of paper, less so. Until this problem was surmounted, eBooks would be nothing but a novelty. When I first saw a Kindle I knew the entire game had changed. As soon as they came out with a screen similar to paper and easy on the eye, the race was on.

At present, it seems to be a two horse race. The two products worth even focusing your eyes on are Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Nobles' Nook (if you're in the market for one, I am not shilling for anyone, but I will give you my educated but unsolicited opinion that at the moment the Nook is a slightly superior product. If a sack of money fell on me, I would probably buy a Nook for myself.) There are other eBook readers but, if we're being serious, it's really about those two. The reason for this is threefold: quality of product and services, name recognition, and price.

Often when new technologies like these come on the market, they are cost prohibitive to the lower middle class for a few years, relegating them to hipsters, metros, tech geeks, people who fly a lot, harnessing that image to build up the waters in the dam of coveting in the fevered brains of the have-nots. (Maybe throw in a highly successful, summer, hip, teen, college comedy-romance movie featuring a scene where Joseph Gordon-Levitt's funny, fat, Seth Rogan-y, Jonah Hill-y sidekick gets up to hilarious antics with an eBook reader in some capacity that will be reposted with LOLCat font commentary on something instantly relevant on every ever-loving Tumblr in existence, frying that product into the parietal lobes of a million young minds.  Or maybe toss that funny eBook scene to someone playing a member of the faculty, either an SNL or Daily Show alum in order to include the post-college crowd into the demographic. The point is, modern slam-dunk advertising revolves around getting the people to recirculate the information on their own. Exhibit A: The Old Spice Guy.)

Where was I?

But Barnes and Noble by-passed that step by dramatically reducing the price of their eBook reader to less than $200. Now, I won't go into product detail too much, you can research that for yourself if you're interested, but B & N also has the advantage of a huge network of brick and mortar stores which they are employing in this endeavor by offering special services and advantages to coming into their stores with your eBook reader. The Kindle thrives because it boasts similar price and features (sans instore features) and also has the name recognition of Hipster Wal-Mart. 

So, what do you do about the multitude who still claim they'll never change or "there's just something about the feel of a book in your hand?"  Or the vast portion of the reading population who are, let's face it, the ones who "have the time to read" (pet peeve of mine: everyone has time to read.  They just don't bring books with them when they wait in line and when they get home they park it in front of, you guessed it, a lighted screen) which is to say the retired population? Or people like me, the bohemian intellectual poor to whom $200 may as well be $2 billion as far as I'm concerned because I can't afford either? Well, let's actually lay aside that last one for a moment and come back to it.

You may wail against the eBook reader and boost the analog book all you want. Most of you are going to have children, if you haven't already, and then you will eventually die. The children will grow up in the world of eBooks and the system is already on top of this. A whopping portion of our population doesn't read but a whopping portion does go to school. And textbooks are very expensive. You see where this is going? It's already there. Don't want to pay $300 for a calculus book that will depreciate somehow to 25 bucks by the end of the semester? Buy the eBook version for $25 in the first place!

Now, back to me. There is the issue of cost, not just of an eBook reader, but also of eBooks themselves.  Normally the fare I lean toward in my reading matter is classical and public domain. But let's take a rare upcoming new book I will probably be reading. If I bought Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas in hardcover from Amazon or in a new bookstore, I would pay about $20 (which is actually on the cheap side of contemporary new hardcovers).  If it were available in Kindle form, I would pay about $9 for it brand new. If I alert the Chico Library that I want to read this book, they will order it and have it waiting for me at the library for absolutely no cost. It's worth it to me to wait to get to read it for free. If I somehow got an eBook reader as a gift or a hand-me-down, I would certainly use it, but I would probably mainly fill it with cheap or free public domain works like, oh, you know, the collected wisdom of human civilization. There are tens to hundreds of thousands like me out there: starving artists and/or poor autodidact intellectuals throughout this country who are tough nuts to crack in this market. They are Readers. Also, I may purchase a new paperback of, say, Ms. Thomas' upcoming book if it were around $10-15 instead of an eBook because if you leave a paperback on a bus or drop it in the bath by accident or it gets stolen (unlikely.  Thieves don't usually have their eyes on books), you're out $10-15.  But if you lose your eBook reader...

Also, if you hate a book you're reading, you can throw it against the wall and not lose $200 and your entire library in the process.

Also, when the economy inevitably collapses and the revolution comes, what happens to all of the eBooks if all of the servers are destroyed? The People in that circumstance must needs educate themselves with physical books.

Then, there's the world of blogs, online news, and self-published books which will bring more people into publication. This is a very good thing because perhaps publishing will of necessity move away from such towering exclusivity. I have no problem with Everyone having a voice. One thing history shows us is that it has a way of weeding out the crap and preserving the greatness over time (although with the sad side effect of incalculable lost masterpieces in the mix, but haven't we already muddied the waters enough?).  I will throw this little Molotov cocktail out there: a book written on a computer, "published" in PDF format, and made available entirely in eBook format independent of an established publisher is NO LESS of a "real book" than a book published by an established publishing company. Martin Luther, Shakespeare, Milton, Ben Franklin, et al. did not have Knopf or Random House. They had a printing press. They produced some of the most enduring works in the history of humankind.

I would add the consideration of physical books as historical objects. If I turn slightly to my left, I see a bookcase that almost touches the ceiling filled with many books of value, many books of great importance in my life for some reason or other, and, most importantly I think, many books that were signed by the author.  The author of the book held the book in their hand and put their signature on it. There is something primal and beautiful about that which I have a hard time imagining dying out completely and I cannot imagine how eBook readers could ever provide one with that aspect of the reading life. Readers are sentimental, romantic fools.  No leaps in technology will ever topple that.

Partly for that reason, I don't think it's time yet to call for the feather and mirror to hold up to the nostrils of the books publishing industry by any means. However, as I mentioned, thinking about handwritten letters makes me a little nervous. Time was when all communication came from handwritten letters and certainly "there's just something so human and historical about a handwritten letter." And yet, in this modern age, although the art of handwritten letters isn't quite dead yet, it might be appropriate for someone to think about calling a priest sometime soon.

In short, I think eBooks are a great thing on a number of levels. I would love one, but don't anticipate actually owning one anytime soon. I don't think they will kill printed books, but they may kill hardcovers or, eventually, it may swing the other way and they may kill everything but flashy gift books. I think the transition will be slow and gradual, more like the cd to MP3 transition (lots of people still purchase recorded music in tangible formats. Likely no longer the majority, but enough so that cds are still being made.)  But, I do think the eBook reader has the potential to finally kill newspapers, maybe even physical magazines, once and for all. 

More importantly, I do think that this will change everything in the publishing industry. I'm not a prophet and am not yet entirely certain what it will actually look like, but I really do believe that the dawn of the eBook is the dawn of a new age. As usual, it's up to us what we do with it.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Pride and Prejudice part 5

Just a thought at the beginning of this week, I was struck by how much of the novel is epistolary and reminded of how many other novels I've encountered from that century are likewise (some are entirely epistolary.)  This week there has been a lot of talk in the literary community over Amazon's claim that, for the first time, this quarter ebook sales have surpassed hardcover book sales.  This is largely due to the ebook industry's (I think Barnes and Noble's Nook was the first to do this) move toward affordable (normally about $150 a unit now) ebook readers.  Of course, this leads to a huge outcry of nay-sayers who repeat the phrases over and over like mantras "Yeah, but there's just something about a real book.." or "I'll never switch from real books, not entirely."

These are sentiments I agree with, but we are only one generation and, apologies for the spoiler, we'll all be dead in 100 years.  Laying aside for the remainder of this entry the question of "what is a real book" (a question I'm sure I'll return to in the future), I wanted to bring up handwritten letters.  The US Postal Service has reported for years the decline of handwritten letters, pretty much since email became essentially universal.  Of course, much like analog books, they will probably never completely disappear, but in a generation or so may become archaic novelties, throwbacks, kitsch.  This may cause you to try to remember the last time you've written a handwritten letter and realize that if it was recently and regularly, you are swimming upstream in a place in space-time which will probably not produce another Dracula, The Screwtape Letters, or even Pride and Prejudice.  In other words, what happened to "the letter" can happen to "the book."  My unsolicited advice to anyone unnerved by this: hand write a letter, read a book, and don't hold so tightly to things.

Elizabeth received letters from Jane.  Lydia has "runnoft" with Wickham.  Knock-kneed and in a flurry over this news, Elizabeth runs to Darcy.  Darcy and Elizabeth regret (or, at least, they show remorse) for not having revealed Wickham's character.  Elizabeth and the Gardiners return to Longbourn where Mr. Bennet has gone off to hunt down the couple and Mrs. Bennet is, not surprisingly, having a fit because of this most unfortunate affair which will probably be much talked of.  Elizabeth and Jane find Lydia's letter to Harriet Forster, which struck me as a bit cavalier over such a weighty matter.

Mr. Gardiner follows Mr. Bennet after they don't receive a letter from him (see what I mean?  We should write more letters.)  Mr. Collins sends a letter to remind us that he is still a churlish boor.  Mr. Bennet throws in the towel and returns.  Mr. Gardiner locates the couple and reports that Mr. Wickham will marry her for a small fee.  Elizabeth reflects on the situation and decides that it could be worse and that she would do well to endeavor to be as happy as she possibly can for Lydia.  Which is kind of depressing when you think about it.  That's all the joy she could muster given the situation.

Mr. Bennet obsesses over his regret (or at least remorse) over not having set more money aside for his family, especially now in light of his assumed indebtedness to the Gardiners.  Elizabeth obsesses over Mr. Darcy.  She begins to realize how her feelings toward him have metamorphosed, although this present demi-scandal may have despoiled any likelihood for a repeat performance of his earlier proposal.  Which makes Elizabeth feel like a bit of a heel one would imagine.  Gardiner tells Mr. Bennet that Wickham's quitting the militia and moving north.  Lydia wants to see her family before moving north and they finally agree to let the couple visit.  The visit is tense.  Then Lydia lets slip that Mr. Darcy was at the wedding (also that this was to be a secret.)  Elizabeth is beside herself with conjecture and suspense.  She writes to Mrs. Gardiner who responds with a long letter which reveals that Darcy, not the Gardiners, paid Wickham off to marry Lydia, because he loves Elizabeth.  Elizabeth's reaction is, understandably, mixed.  At the end, Elizabeth makes apparent peace with Wickham.

Events are snowballing and I was probably foolish to split this up into another week.  But we did and so now we will read to the end of the book this coming week.  Enjoy.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Let's All Write An Alphabet Poem!

Once again, this is more of a poetry exercise than a poetic form. 

There are many forms and ways of producing an alphabet poem.  Ron Padgett writes "The Alphabet Poem is one that uses the letters of the alphabet as points of departure for lines or whole poems."  He gives examples.  One is to start each line with the successive letters of the alphabet.  Another is to employ letters of the alphabet prominently in each line like so:

Or sometimes you'll find versions with the letter repeated often within the line.  As you may well imagine, I'm not going to do one of those as it falls very close to alliteration, which we've already done.  I think my favorite version of the Alphabet Poem suggested by Mr. Padgett is:
" a single letter of the alphabet, look at it, let its appearance suggest images and ideas, and write them down..." 
I like the freedom of this form and, to be frank, I'm looking for ways to exit these remedial forms at the beginning of the book.  You'll notice it's been over a week since my last poetic exercise.  I'm starting to feel a little like when I was in elementary school and had a year where my behavior and performance went through the floor until someone had the sense to test me for the gifted student program.  It turned out I was bored.

Actually this section has been quite challenging and it's pushing me to do things I wouldn't have done on my own (which was the main point of this project in the first place.)  But I keep reminding myself that we're going alphabetically and at the very least I know that Ballad is coming soon.

So, here's my alphabet poem:

A is for Human
by Paul Mathers

And it taxes not reason that all began with a word.
Naked we came with letter grades.
Our school invention reflection: a joke,
An offense to the angels.
At death we find our letters of direction
stapled to our forehead.
Those whose deeds take them as low as V or W
directed downward, zilch of oblivion.
If only someone could lend us a capital A
to ascend like a step ladder.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Some Fruits of Solitude by William Penn

The full title of the book is Some Fruits of Solitude in Reflections and Maxims by William Penn.  William Penn, as you well know, is he of whom Pennsylvania is named. In fact, he founded Pennsylvania as a safe-haven for Quakers in a time when Quakers were commonly put to death for their beliefs both here and abroad.  Penn was the second (actually, I guess the third as we must give proper credit to Margaret Fell) major figure in the Friends movement.

When I was in England, I saw the courthouse where William Penn was tried and convicted (I think for "non-conformity") before he came to America.  It was the same courthouse where Oscar Wilde was tried and convicted around 200 years later (for non-conformity of a different color.)

Some Fruits of Solitude is a collection of wisdom by William Penn, mainly for reflection and to encourage working on virtue in one's life, often drawn from Proverbs and the Epistle of James.  It is separated into subjects, some spanning up to 3 pages, but most only a few sentences.  I get the impression it is a book to be read in small chunks and slowly digested.  I devoured it over the past two days.

Some of the more striking sections for me were two quotes in particular "Time is what we want most, but what, alas!,we use worst.  Man in being Thoughtless, falls below himself." and "Truth often suffers more by the heat of its defenders, than from the arguments of it opposers."  There is also a section where he explains how a virtuous person seeks to never do something that they wouldn't feel comfortable doing in the presence of anyone.  The book is brimming with such pearls.

I found this to be a very helpful book.  I've been thinking about working on virtue quite a bit lately, working on one's self, striving to be a better man and that sort of thing.  This was the sort of book one would give to young people to hopefully give them some instruction in building character which, at least in some circles, was more important than, say, being the sexiest (exhibit A: a portrait of William Penn:
I could be cast as this man in a film.)  Mainly I think it's profitable to work toward being virtuous as a reward unto itself and a way to build self-control (always a good idea and always a rarity in this modern age which gives one an edge.)  Also, a desire for same rises from the abundance of the heart.

It was a short book, but certainly a very important one.  I'm sure I will carry pieces of this book with me for the rest of my life.  I would recommend it to anyone.  Some of the language is a bit archaic, but well worth the time and effort.  Highly recommended.

Our trip to Sacramento

We went to Sacramento for the past few days.  Again, we didn't tell you we were leaving town in order to remove any temptation you may have had to burglarize our house.  I spent a lot of the last few days in a chair in the lobby with coffee and a book:

Laurie had a conference.  I went mainly with the purpose of seeing the Capitol building and taking pictures of older buildings in Sacramento. On the first full day, I set out to do all of that, but found that Sacramento, especially around the Capitol, is all metered parking. In a rare instance of lack of foresight on my part, I had only a dime and a few pennies on me. Also, Sacramento's traffic, rough atmosphere (at least in that neighborhood,) and grid of one way streets all worked to incline me back to the hotel. I did see the Capitol building several times as I drove around the blocks surrounding it and it is impressive. I probably could have planned that project a little better. So, that's why I don't have great, sweeping pictures of the Capitol, stories of meeting high state officials, being transfigured by the beauty of the state trees in the Capitol mall, finding a long forgotten letter by John Steinbeck that had been secreted in the pages of a book in the California State Library for the past 50 years.  Instead, I scurried back to the hotel like a cockroach.

I did quite a bit of walking and wandering around the neighborhood of the hotel, but all of the surrounding area looked like this:

Really, I could have turned in any direction on my walks and taken a picture and it would have looked very much like the picture above. 

Here is me in front of an immensely fake elephant.  I imagine the artist had in mind that Scotty tied one on and got the coordinates wrong when teleporting an elephant and transported it halfway into a rock wall.  It is a gruesome death.

We ate at The Elephant Bar, which was directly across the street from our hotel, for almost every meal.  Being a vegetarian, I did not try the elephant.

I think we were infinitely happier when we resolved ourselves to the mundane in our free time.  A lot of our free time looked like the photo above. I finished Ben Franklin's autobiography (see previous post) and most of a book by William Penn (see forthcoming post.)  I walked to the mall and was accosted by salespeople who buffed one of my thumbnails until it shone like it was polished. It's still remarkably shiny and I keep staring at it like a magpie. I had not in thirty-three years of life ever had a moment of discontent over the state of my fingernails up to that point.

All in all, it was a good trip in spite of how much money we spent on food. I got bad marks in Frugality every day of the trip and my presence was probably superfluous although I like to think that my wife enjoys my company. But we did have fun; I got a lot of reading done, I got a lot of thinking done, I possibly have a tangible job prospect from the trip, I got to remind myself why I never watch televised news, Laurie and I listened to salsa music and watched fireworks from the State Fairgrounds and saw ducklings, and now I have a shiny thumb.  

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin is another one of those figures in American history who we Americans tend to think we know quite a bit about, however his famous autobiography tends to largely fall into the category of classic as expressed by that other great American, Mark Twain, who wrote "A classic is a book which people praise and don't read."  I think I can probably count on one hand the people I've known in my life (that I know of) who have read Franklin's Autobiography. Of those, I imagine I was not the first who was acutely aware of Franklin omitting almost every major part of his life that we usually think of when we think of his life. There is nothing about The Revolution, the experiments with electricity, the strange relationship with his son, meeting Voltaire. He even mentions at one point that he has dined with kings, but sadly never gets to the portion of his life which would occasion telling those stories. I don't think a single founding father was named in the course of the narrative.

The reason for this is that he wrote the book in three chunks of his life, the final one, falling pat into the "unfinished" category, may very well have been moving toward the Revolution as he wrote it in the last year of his life, but if memory serves, I think he only got up to more than a decade before the first shot was heard around the world.

So, what does he write about?  Well, the first section of the book seems to have been intended for his son and written in the 1750s. It deals with Franklin's early life which, while interesting, often focuses heavily on what now seem like trivialities. For example, he spends a lot of time talking about petty squabbles and loans between people history has relegated to mere footnotes (mainly as people who owed Franklin money at one point).  Also the costs of the printing business. Of course, the financial figures didn't age well and are largely meaningless to modern readers.

In the second portion, Franklin is much older and compelled to write by fans who are eager to read his story in his own words. I found this to be the real meat of the book. I found this to be what made this book worthwhile. Otherwise it would have been a collection of some semi-amusing anectdotes about colonial America. He spends a lot of time dealing with virtues and exercises to strengthen same. His list of thirteen (note: same number as the colonies, and Franklin was not above being cute) is as follows:
1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness and drink not to elevation.
2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.
3. Order: Let all your things have their places. Let each part of your business have its time.
4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.
6. Industry: Lose no time. Be always employed in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice: Wrong none, by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation: Avoid extremes. Forebear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes or habitation.
11. Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring; Never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.
12. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
 He had a score sheet through which he would work on one virtue per week, marking down at the end of the day if he had failed, hopefully mastering a virtue per week. He admits that he never perfected it, but found the exercise extremely helpful in his personal and professional lives. His endorsement of his system is so ringing that I keep almost convincing myself to try it.

Also on the topic of behavior (Franklin was refreshingly, highly concerned with character and virtue) Franklin spends a good deal of time on dealing with people in conversation. I appreciated his focus on avoiding dogmatics in discussion and debate, steering more toward phrases akin to "In my experience I have found..." for the sake of the preservation of peace and friendship. I also thought it a wonderful piece of advice that when one is seeking donations for a cause to not speak of it as "your cause" but rather a cause that a group of people you represent stand behind. He says people are more likely to give more freely if you present the cause in that manner.  

I think one of the most challenging sections for me dealt with his dealings with religious people. Franklin states in no uncertain terms that he was not a religious man. He mentions how, in his experience, many religious people in specific sects are like people in a fog who look around them and think everyone around them is in a fog, not perceiving that they too are in a fog. I wanted to be sympathetic to this analogy and usually I probably would be, but the challenge came in that his catalyst for this observation revolved around two specific groups in religion that I naturally gravitate toward appreciating a great deal. One was George Whitefield. Franklin had a much more complex relationship with Whitefield than most historians (including me when I taught my Whitefield class) let on. The other was the Quakers. I grew up as a Quaker and still largely (especially lately) consider myself a Quaker at heart. Franklin, on account of some of his more hawkish tendancies, had great misgivings toward the Quakers. I felt that he stopped just shy of mocking them in his narrative and at that Franklin and I parted ways.

One of the aspects of Franklin's well known public life that he does cover in the text is his introduction of many public services into the colonies. He really did provide us with a great legacy of public libraries, fire departments, largely the postal service, and public schools. He does give fairly good detail on the establishment of each of these institutions and they make for riveting reading.

In spite of the unexpected direction and the unfulfilled desire to hear his firsthand account of later, more famous events in his life (if only he'd lived another year or so... Although knowing him he would most likely have filled that extra year engaged in more pressing activities as well), I think I come away from this book challenged, with great jewels of wisdom, and with a good deal to think about. It is, indeed, a great work of literature although it might not be the great work of literature you're expecting when you go into it.  

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Our Forefathers

My friend Anurag Kumar (author of the excellent novel Recalcitrance, which is about the Indian uprising in Lucknow in 1857.  If you haven't read my review of it, you can read it here.  I would also point out that recently the book has become available in eBook format) mentioned that he would interested in reading what I have to say about Abraham Lincoln.

We, in America, do not have royalty and as a result we often see American culture transferring our need to worship other humans onto celebrities. Many of our better presidents are regarded a bit like Caesars, in death almost attaining godhood in the eyes of the culture. Lincoln is probably one of the best examples of this. Of course, there are a great deal of "humanizing" anecdotes about Lincoln, but in my experience they mainly only serve to boost that esteem toward Lincoln in the peculiarly American "Everyman" or "Underdog" way. Indeed, that may be the key to our esteem for him as we are, as I said, a nation that rejects royalty. One of the things I find so attractive about Lincoln is that he was kind of a loser, a provincial lawyer losing the Senate race twice, right up until he became the greatest president in the history of our nation. There is also plenty of material written on his greatness.

Also, our culture is hyper-saturated with Lincoln. People of every economic class see his image daily on our one cent piece. He appears in film, cartoons, commercials, to the effect of echolalia.

Which leaves me with the difficult task of writing something hopefully original and blog-entry length on the man about whom it seems almost everything has been said that is to be said. I've been sitting on the post for about a month now, like Brahms with his symphonies, trying to figure my angle. So, I thought I might write simply, after the fashion of a junior high essay, about what's important to me about Lincoln specifically and why he is probably my favorite president. I think it might be best to just relax and talk about what I think about when I think about Abraham Lincoln.

I think there are two key points of importance in regards to Lincoln's greatness in my estimation. One is, as I mentioned, that he was kind of a loser. There's an essence of America in the "underdog making good" story. There was also the tactical brilliance of his composing his cabinet of former enemies who he 1) knew were highly capable, 2) could therefore keep an eye on and 3) use the situation to diffuse some of the most powerful men in the country from continuing to be his enemies.  Lincoln had a tactical genius.

Being what's known in contemporary American slang as "a dove," I don't dwell long on his being a wartime president, although I do have to say that the preservation of the Union was of the utmost importance. I look back on that with great gratitude in spite of my gross misgivings about the grizzly war that afforded it. But more importantly, and my second major point about Lincoln, was the issue of slavery which America was still perpetuating thirty years after William Wilberforce died. Slavery is abominable and a monstrous institution, but 150 years ago my nation had a slave trade (and, in some cases, it continues to exist.)

Although earlier in his career, not seeming to have quite as clear a plan to abolish the institution of slavery, (in the Lincoln-Douglas debates he said "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists") Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which, in theory, put an end to the institution of slavery in America in the midst of the Civil War, stating that those owning or trading slaves were in rebellion against the United States of America. "And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God."

Which is very good, but it was another 100 years before the Civil Rights movement.  Humans continued to treat one another atrociously. Lincoln is often viewed as sort of the great-grandfather of Civil Rights, which is nice, but there was still a very long road ahead to equality after the work of President Lincoln, a road we are still on. One of the major issues in human civilization is that of equality. We like to fancy ourselves beacons to the rest of the world on issues of equality and to a large extent we've made great leaps and bounds toward that end. But in actuality America has a long way to go until we reach the enviable position of all humans being equal. be it over race, gender, religion (or lack thereof), economic class, or anything else for that matter.
"Racism gone? If only it were possible. Sadly, it is the furthest thing from the truth. Racism is a complicated issue. The election of Obama did not and cannot erase what has taken hundreds of years to establish. Yes, our country has made tremendous strides in getting to where we are today, but there is still so much work to be done. Whether we see it or not, racism is woven like elastic threads throughout our nation’s garments. The elastic threads are there and show their presence only when stretched. Threads can be dyed to blend in with the adjacent material, they can be enclosed so they’re out of sight, or they can even become part of the fabric’s design, but they remain part of the garment until intentionally removed. The threads of racism run throughout American culture and are disguised in so many ways. Most people are so accustomed to racism’s presence that they cannot even see the threads. I don’t mean this in a harsh way, but I believe anyone who has been raised and educated in this country has been trained from day one to be racist or at least biased against others based on skin color and ethnicity. I also believe that unless individuals, with intentionality, have done what is necessary to change their subconscious responses to race, they still are clothed with countless threads of racism."— Clifford O. Chappell
I do not wish to minimize this at all. In fact, I want to emphasize that I think the Emancipation Proclamation is probably the most important act of Lincoln's life. I think it did more to preserve the Union that any of the victories on the battlefield and I could probably dig up many historians who would back me up in that assertion.

I am a strong believer in the equality of all humankind.  I believe that none of us are free so long any of us are slaves, in prison, in want or need, or treated as less than equal in any way. Ultimately, I think Lincoln was moving America toward its ultimate goal and therefore is sort of the American martyr. It's debatable (and, in fact, I've heard it debated) how aware he was of this or if he was just acting out of necessity.  To this, I think he spoke fairly succinctly in his Second Inaugural Address:
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." 
In the end, I think it's not surprising but obvious that I did not end up saying anything original about Lincoln, but again, that wasn't exactly the point.  One of the helpful aspects of having a figure like this in our history is to be able to reflect on such things.  How often do we reflect on equality and inequality?  How often on a daily basis do we see the image of Lincoln?  I know I would do well to search myself and see where my own personal line is set in my subconscious whereby I evaluate a person and find myself treating them as less than my equal and then do everything in my power to seek to erase that line within myself.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Pride and Prejudice Part 4

The painting above is a daub slapped together for episode 4 of the BBC's 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice.  It was employed as set dressing in the scene where Groundskeeper Reynolds talks about the wonderful Mr. Darcy in front of his portrait at Pemberley.  It is a painting of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.  Last year at auction it sold for 12,000 pounds (Americans: one British pound is about equal to $1.50.)  There are some very rabid Austen fans out there (although, one might not draw that conclusion.  One might draw the conclusion that there are rabid Colin Firth fans out there.  You would have to ask the person who had 12,000 pounds at their disposal who felt that the money would be better spent on a prop than, you know, doing any good in this world.) 

So, at the beginning of this week's reading, Darcy, Fitzwilliam and then Elizabeth all leave.  Individually, Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins give rather unnerving goodbyes.  We return to The Gardiners and Jane briefly.  Lydia lets fly that Mary King has moved to Liverpool and will not be marrying Mr. Wickham.  Elizabeth doesn't want to go to see the regiment or soldiers or what-have-you because she doesn't want to risk having to see Mr. Wickham.  Mary delivers one of the oft quoted and printed upon t-shirts lines of the book "I should infinitely prefer a book."

Elizabeth is itching to tell Jane about what went on with Mr. Darcy, the strange proposal, even stranger letter, and, even strangest of all, the manner of delivery of same.  Jane gets her Mr. Wickham paradigm shifted. 

Mrs. Bennet checks in to list off things she dislikes in this portion of our narrative and disappears again into the bombast.  Lydia trots off to visit The Forsters.  Elizabeth sees Wickham after all and they talk mainly about Mr. Darcy.  Then Wickham's troupe marches off to do whatever it is they do.  Fight zombies or something ("Aim for the head, Mr. Wickham!")  Everyone waves goodbye with diverse and sundry emotional connections.

Elizabeth goes back to the Gardiners and embarks on a tour of Pemberley when she hears that Mr. Darcy isn't there and Mr. Gardiner forcefully asserts how delightful are the grounds of Pemberley.  He feels very strongly about their delightfulness.  I get that.  I also get making believe what it would be like to be the owner.  I get that too.  I do that with Conde Nast Traveler and Departures magazines.  I do that with most of my photo dumps on my other blog.  Elizabeth does that while touring Pemberley.  Groundskeeper Reynolds has a very different view of Mr. Darcy from Elizabeth's established prejudice.  Mr. Darcy appears suddenly (in flumes of sulfurous smoke) and behaves himself.  Suddenly everybody loves Darcy and Elizabeth is both bewildered and feeling like a bit of a heel.

Elizabeth meets Miss Darcy the next day.  Mr. and Miss Darcy visit Elizabeth at the Inn.  The Gardiners catch that he's in love with Elizabeth and they plan to dine with him.  Our heroes visit Pemberley to see Miss Darcy who is also being visited by Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley.  Elizabeth wisely swings clear of conversing about Wickham.  Bingley talks about Elizabeth to Mr. Darcy who reveals his appreciation of her.  And at the end of this week's reading, we ask ourselves in reference to Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, "Whither the pride?  Whither the prejudice?" 

Apparently it's been transplanted into Miss Bingley.

This week's reading struck me as sort of connective material.  We are slouching toward what seems to be the inevitable coupling of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, sure, but the fun is in the journey, the mutation, the transformation of the people and the relationships.  The characters are experiencing their archs.  

Next week, we read through Chapter 52 which, in my text, takes us to page 307.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Help all you can, but can all you help.

This post has a purpose.  It is a call for help from local readers here in Butte County.  If you are not a local reader, you can ignore this post or you can just enjoy the pictures of a kitty.

Laurie and I are animal lovers.  We have three indoor cats and two dogs, all of which are rescued in some capacity.  We also have Cinco who lives mainly in our garage with the book business.  We would have her inside but she does not get along with the other animals.  But sometimes when she's out during the day we set out food for her, which also brought around Evil Tom who is Napoleon's father (you see, it's already getting complicated.)  We've been trying to earn Evil Tom's trust for a while now.  It ebbs and flows.  So, needless to say, we currently are at pet capacity.

But now a new, young, unneutered male cat has been showing up on our porch.  I've been calling him Bizarro Cinco because he looks like a leaner version of Cinco.

He is very cute and handsome.  He is also very friendly and clean which makes me think he may have been abandoned.  He looks like a little ballet dancer, but it may be that he has been undernourished.  He shovels his food.  He really really wants a home, a safe place with consistent food.

We are urgently trying to decide what to do with him.  First of all, as I said, he appears to be unneutered which is unacceptable.  Also, he doesn't get along with Cinco and Evil Tom has disappeared altogether since Bizzy has started hanging around.  So, we were talking about taking him to the Humane Society because 1) they will neuter him and 2) they will keep him fed and happy until 3) they find him a home (our local Humane Society doesn't euthanize healthy animals whose only crime is that no one wants to adopt them.  They keep them until someone does.) 

But here is where you come in.  You see, today you have a wonderful opportunity set before you.  You do not want to squander this fabulous opportunity, this brief window that could afford you inestimable joy in the years to come.  Bizarro can be yours for absolutely free if you have a good home to offer him.  His shots and neutering will be your responsibility, but I assure you he is a very good cat.  He would be very nice to come home to.  You also don't have to call him Bizarro.  He looks like he is fairly young, so I imagine you would have a friend in him for many years.  And you'll be helping us by relieving the tension in the feline community on our front porch. 

Otherwise, we'll probably take him to the Humane Society tomorrow, but I figured I would give my readers the opportunity first.  I would love to know he's getting a good home, so act now.  Let me know ASAP. 

Reading the Classics with Paul- Pride and Prejudice part III

Enter the Gardiners who visit to talk about plays, fashion, and how clearly crestfallen Jane appears. The Gardiners offer to take her with them to London, which she takes them up on in hopes of running into Mr. Bingley.  Mrs. Gardiner doesn't approve of Wickham and lets Elizabeth know it.  We begin to feel the noose tightening ever so slightly.  There is a rising tension over the couplings that must needs manifest for the purposes of the narrative like the tension of a game of musical chairs.  And off Jane and the Gardiners toddle to London town.

Jane's epistolary recounting of her encounter with Miss Bingley pulls it a bit tighter, as does Mr. Collins' return and impending marriage.  Elizabeth writes to Mrs. Gardiner assuring her that Wickham's affections have shifted to another.  Elizabeth permits Wickham's desire for financial independence, a display of magnanimosity she did not afford Charlotte in her betrothal to Mr. Collins. We, the reader, however, might do well to keep an eye on that Mr. Wickham.  He may be a squirrelly one after all.

Elizabeth visits the Gardiners and she still leaps to the defense of Mr. Wickham's character in conversation with Mrs. Gardiner.  Elizabeth visits Mr. Collins and Charlotte.  They seem to be doing well.  Elizabeth sees Miss de Bough out of a window and says that she will make Darcy an appropriate match ("a very proper wife" were her exact words) as she looks sickly and cross.  While dinner is exceedingly handsome, Lady Catherine is rather the opposite in conversation, having condescended to dine with Elizabeth she proceeds to be condescending throughout.  Lady Catherine seems to be the anthropomorphic representation of the title of the book in a more unsightly manifestation.

Colonel Fitzwilliam shows up, as does Darcy, and soon everyone is dining again.  Darcy and Elizabeth share an awkward moment.  There's the assumption, soon after ascertained, over the marriage intervention just before Darcy drops the bomb.  I was reminded of Jane Eyre when Darcy proposes to Elizabeth out of the blue.  Elizabeth returns the favor and reveals her true feelings about Mr. Darcy.  To put it mildly, their feelings towards one another seem to be at odds, precluding the possibility of a happy marriage.  The distance between the two of them appears at this rather dramatic point in our narrative almost insurmountable vis a vis loving matrimony.  I almost wish I'd chosen this as our stopping point this week as it was a bit of a cliff hanger.

But Elizabeth is naturally stunned.  As she's mooing around the park like a hammered sheep, Mr. Darcy curtly places a written expositional dramatic monologue in her hand and then splits.  His letter is surprisingly detailed.  First, he admits to and defends his intervention with Bingley and Jane.  Then, we get the relationship between Darcy and Wickham from Darcy's point of view.  Given what we're beginning to suspect of Mr. Wickham's character, we are left mulling over the possibility of the truth of Mr. Darcy's testimony.  Elizabeth isn't convinced over the Bingley affair, but finds herself reassessing her estimation of both Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy.

How will Elizabeth react?  Is Darcy's version the more accurate one?

Well, true believers, stay tuned and find out in our next week's exciting installment of Pride and Prejudice.  Excelsior!

For this next week, we shall read  through Chapter 45 which, in my book, takes me up to page 252.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Know Your Contemporary Authors- Brendan Constantine

Brendan Constantine

This is the first in our series of contemporary authors which features a contemporary author that I know personally.  He is not only one of my favorite living poets, he is also one of my favorite human beings walking the Earth.  I see him every few years at poetry readings (or, most recently, a wedding of a fellow poet) and I always come away with some poetic part of my brain recharged a bit.

When I was in my late teens, I became as involved in the Southern California poetry scene as I possibly could.  I went to every poetry reading I could and cultivated friendships with as many poets as I could.  I, of course, was in the Orange County branch of the Southern California poetry scene simply by virtue of the geographic location of my house.  Brendan Constantine belonged to the Los Angeles poetry scene.  There was some bleed over in those two scenes due to proximity and there would be "crossing the county lines" readings, but for the most part, the two scenes had a very different energy.  In my estimation, the Los Angeles scene was more inventive.  That is to say that their scene seemed to me vibrant, tight, and creative.  I was always excited to go to LA poetry readings. 

So, Brendan is a poet from the City of Angels.  He teaches poetry in many diverse venues.  He is one of the west coast's better (and better known) poets.  In 2002, he was nominated as California's Poet Laureate. 

If you ever get the chance to see him read or take a class that he is involved with, jump at it.  If you're anywhere near Southern California, you will have ample opportunity to do so.  He is an active and involved member of the literary community.  Not only is he wildly talented, but he is devoted to the form.  He is also a ferociously lively person.  Poetry spits out of his eyes like sparks.

Also, you can purchase his most recent (I think) volume of poetry from Amazon in print or Kindle editions.  Amazon describes his collection Letters to Guns:
Letters To Guns represents a collection of poems that examine the para-physical natures of love and history, at times re-imagining both. As the poems progress, eight letters arrive written by non-human addressees (a nightgown, a grove of trees, a wooden spoon, others) at random points over the last 2,200 years. They are messages from home and pleas for understanding, warnings and promises of change. These in turn ignite other poems and themes which anticipate the next arrival. Taken together, the letters form an armature, a living skeleton fleshed by real and metaphenomenal experience. Throughout, a variety of styles appear and no single approach to poetry pervades. Singly, these poems should challenge and entertain. As a group they must transform and evolve our experience of sitting down with a book of poems.
You can also learn more and get other works by him from his website:

Be more awesome.  Engage with and expose yourself to some of the better contemporary poetry.

Here's a link to a reading by Constantine and an interview section interspersed.  I should probably mention, as I know we have a variety of readers, you may want to herd the children into the nursery or library or conservatory before you listen to it as it contains some words (oddly, mostly uttered by the host of the show) that children tend to pick up and wait to repeat until the middle of Sunday School.  But it is an excellent reading and interview.  Don't miss out on the wonderful reading and, I would add, be sure to catch his fantastic answer to the question of why poetry is important:

Monday, July 5, 2010

Let's All Write something to do with Alliteration

Again, Ron Padgett's Handbook of Poetic Forms is not so much providing us with a poetric form in this exercise as a poetic device or tool.  However, modesty would prevent me from pointing out that my post on Allegories proved that these can be very profitable exercises.  Apparently, modesty has fled the day.

Padgett asserts, in his description of the device, that alliteration can often serve as a stand in for rhyme (or, in some cases, it's a series of like sounds strung together.  Kind of like switching it into hyper-rhyme.)  It is pleasing to the ear and guides the listener through the poem, slapping them awake with like sounds.  As with rhyme, it repeats a sound through the poem.  Most commonly you will see alliteration in reference to word clusters of the same first letter (think V's entrance into the story of V for Vendetta in the film version as well as throughout the original), but it can also mean clusters of words with similar sounds (as I said: hyper-rhyme.)  Padgett brings up Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Bells.  Since this is a blog where we can play with other things from the internet, I offer this example instead:

Hopefully we've established by now that we are playing with words in this exercise (as we sort of are with all of these exercises.)  This exercise is about 1) vocabulary and 2) application of vocabulary (i.e. training the ear to speak.)  I am going to delve in to the "same first letter" version of alliteration.  Since I mentioned V for Vendetta in the parenthesis above, I think I will go with the letter "V" in mine.  We'll call it homage, which is a fancy word for stopping just short of plagiarism.

More formal forms will emerge as we continue through the book, but here now is my piece of alliteration:

V for Verisimilitude
by Paul Mathers

Verily, My voice is veriloquent when I aver
I've a view for verve, vigor and vim,
although my vocation is vocalizing for victuals,
and I've a vociferous vexation over the vile, venal and villainous varlets
who've volunteered their vanity with the volume of a vuvuzela.
Invariably, in velitation with these very venomous vipers
I'm not averse to violence.
My venae cavae volting with vinegar and vitriol,
I ravage the variety of vapid vermin with volcanic volleys,
vacating their vitality to their various Vahallas.

That was WAY harder than I thought it would be.  My esteem for Alan Moore has just shot through the roof.  In fact, you might say my respect for him is now at its vertex.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Little Closet Cleaning

I don't remember the specific instance when I first met Laurie, but I do remember one detail: she was wearing leopard skin gloves. I remember this because I remember thinking, "This is someone I might actually be able to talk to."  I've always felt like an alien in my own religion and I have found that simpatico souls are a rare oasis in my spiritual walk. Laurie is my friend and has been since I first met her. I was correct with that first instinct.

When I got married, I, in effect, told my best friend that I wanted to share the rest of my life with her. That is not code or artful speaking. I mean that quite literally. "Sharing" is a dirty word in some conservative circles which is one of the many reasons why I feel more comfortable moving in circles more toward the Left. I rotate counterclockwise. I didn't marry to ascend to a position as the Pope of my household. Laurie and I married because, if we didn't, someone else would marry the other and then it wouldn't be appropriate for us to be best friends anymore. I married Laurie because she is my best friend and I want to be with her until one of us dies. And my love for her is the only thing that keeps me from overtly wishing it will be me first so I don't have to ever live without her.

Of course, there are some differences in our marriage from those in some of the others in our immediate peer group. When I came into this family, I gained two step-kids who are, for all intents and purposes, full grown adults. Laurie and I will probably not have children of our own (but if we find ourselves with children someday, we've already picked out the names: Temperance for a girl and Dalton for a boy. The latter pleases Laurie because it's after John Dalton, he of the 19th century atomic theory. I like it because of Dalton Trumbo, of course.)  In other words, I see a lot of young people marrying other young people in order to start families, hopefully gain a new level of financial security, and to be in the married person club. Laurie and I didn't do any of that. Those were not our purposes in marrying one another, although there is nothing scripturally or culturally invalid about our marriage.

So often I hear the church talking about gender roles in marriage and, as you might imagine, they strike me as absurd. First of all, I don't appreciate outsiders telling me how I ought to conduct my marriage relationship. In these esoteric circles I am referred to as an Egalitarian, a term which I like because it reminds me of the Age of Reason. In my marriage as in the rest of my life: liberty, equality, brotherhood. This means I see in the fullness of Christ's teaching, example, and the epistles of the early church that followed His ministry, the clear concept of equality in men, women, all races, ages and classes. It is my belief that the spirit of scripture points directly to this equality in the same way that the Bible doesn't explicitly forbid slavery or polygamy, however any Christian (or even, I may go so far as to argue, any civilized person) must needs find through the fullness of their worldview those practices morally abhorrent. Although, I can even point to a few specific instances where it could be argued it is expressed overtly. I'm hardpressed to think of it getting any clearer than Galatians 3:28:
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
Therefore, in our marriage, Laurie and I really are equals. Laurie and I both have a vote. She, in her conscience, has told me that I do hold veto power should it ever come to that, although I, in my conscience, don't think I've ever exercised that. We are two people sharing our lives, loving one another, seeking to lift the other spiritually, physically, and emotionally. 

Yes, scripture says that the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. I'll return to this point in a few moments, but first bear in mind that the head and the body are two parts of one body which work together for one another. Kill the head and the body will die, and vice versa.  Another thing I would mention before we move on is that the husband is the head. It doesn't say "he lays down the law and arranges things in such a way that he may become the head." It's not something to do or something to go out and prove, it is what it is.
If we do want to get down to gender roles, yes, practically speaking there are some things one of us does that the other doesn't. I tend to dig any holes that need to be dug, chop up tree limbs when they fall (our olive tree got a little ahead of its capacity in its olive production last year), and I carry the kitty litter and pet food into the house. I think Laurie can testify that the "home things" that she does (making the bed, keeping things tidy, cooking) come more from being unequally yoked in competence in those areas than doing the "women's work." I fold clothes like The Incredible Hulk, therefore Laurie takes that task upon herself. Likewise, I include her in every decision and ask her opinion about the course of our life. I wouldn't even have thought of doing otherwise on my own without the suggestion of religious leaders. It's her life too. I would feel like a jerk if I put my foot down on some life course that made Laurie miserable but which she went with out of marital duty.
Along with that, I think people should do what needs to be done. I think people should do what they are gifted to do and try to do what they love. I think if you're fully capable of doing something that would be helpful to those you love and would also be helpful to you, but you refrain (or are forbidden) on the grounds of your gender, that is madness. I should probably also point out that I am not creating an infinite regress of telling other people how they should be in my post about how I don't appreciate people telling me how I should be. I'm simply talking about how it is in my home and why I like it that way. I am explaining why we are as we are, with the super-objective of expressing how I love and serve my wife. If you want to be patriarchs, go nuts. Personally, I am bound by my conscience to treat other beings with equal respect, compassion and love (ooo, look at me getting all emotionally manipulative!)

So, there are those who take a bit from Ephesians and a bit from Titus and focus their entire ministries on producing volumes on how men and women ought to act in the privacy of their own marriages. Never mind that in the day Scripture was written the economic structure was agrarian economy on the cusp of the early throes of the feudal with an imperialistic monarchy for government. Men didn't go off in the morning to the office or the factory or whatnot. They didn't lose their jobs unless they got leprosy or lost a limb (and while we're talking about economics, I feel the uncontrollable compulsion to at least mention in passing that, in my experience, those who are so worked up over trying to recreate certain aspects of "Bible times" with a myopic eye akin to a Renaissance Fair, are inexplicably much less anxious to return to the Early Church's economy of "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." I say this in full knowledge that my Egalitarianism as well as my Socialism will disqualify anything I say to a Christian Patriarch in spite of my arbitrary possession of their preferred gender. I also give out candy on Hallowe'en, read Darwinists with an open mind, and occasionally drink a glass of red wine. Lock up your children; I walk free.)

But don't let's set up camp on negative ground. My purpose here was mainly to expound a bit upon that bit from Ephesians 5: 21 "''...submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ" and specifically how I love and serve my wife, hopefully "as Christ loved the church." What do I think this looks like? How does Christ love the church? He love her selflessly and with the ultimate heart of service even to the point of a remarkably gruesome death. 

I want Laurie to be happy and healthy. I want for her to be able to have a heart filled with peace and delight. I want to provide for her and I want her to be able to do what she needs (and wants) to do. I listen to her, walk and talk with her, spend as much time with her as I can. Literally everything I own is hers as well. We share. 

I cannot offer her salvation as Christ does for the church, but I can seek to be consistently preaching the Gospel, to paraphrase St. Francis of Assisi, be it with words or actions. And she loves, respects and honors me out of the abundance of her heart, probably because I love her in this manner out of the abundance of mine. In our case I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say, hopefully not sacrificing all modesty in doing so, that she loves me because I first love her. It's real and I don't have to be a dictator or a pope or a patriarch to effect that outcome.

The problem with hierarchies is that there is always a "top" which is an enviable position and, therefore, which inspires envy, discontent by its very existence, and inevitably jockeying for that position. This leads to the addiction to being righter than the next guy and self-aggrandizement. What a stupid way to waste one's life! Rather,
"...Jesus called them to him and said, 'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.'” (Mt. 20:25-28)

When I embarked on my spiritual walk, it was with a commitment to certain principles coming from a desire for love, compassion and reverence for life.  Albert Schweitzer wrote:
"Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil."
In my marriage, as well as in the rest of my life, I hope to enhance life for my wife, my family, my pets, and, secondarily by virtue of these, myself. I certainly agree with Schweitzer that it is evil to hinder life. What a world it would be if everyone sought to fully commit themselves to Reverence for Life and treat one another with mutual respect, esteem, and equality! In democratic terms, here at the top end of the weekend where we in America celebrate our Independence, surely we are free as long as our freedoms do not infringe upon the civil liberties of others. But to put this hopefully holographic ethic more warmly and more locally, I love my wife. She is my best friend and I want to be with her, relate to her, do whatever I can to make her happy and improve her life. Not only do I feel that she is in all ways my equal, most of the time I am fully convinced that she is in all ways my better.