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QUINTESSENCE

Emptying the Tank

North Sea at sunset
A WINTER NOTEBOOK
by May Sarton

1
Low tide -
The sea's slow motion,
The surge and slur
Over rocky shingle.

A few gulls ride
Rocking-horse waves.

Under blurred gray sky
The field shines white.

2
I am not available
At the moment
Except to myself.

Downstairs the plumber
Is emptying the big tank,
Water-logged.
The pump pumped on and on
And might have worn out.

So many lives pour into this house,
Sometimes I get too full;
The pump wears out.

So now I am emptying the tank.
It is not an illness
That keeps me from writing.
I am simply staying alive
As one does
At times taking in,
At times shutting out.


Isn't this poem beautiful? To think of ourselves, the way Sarton observes, as full and changing as the sea. One moment surging with the flotsam of experience borne from the day; the next, emptying at low-tide, souls following the gulls out to sea.

The stanzas above come from a longer work in May Sarton's final book of poetry, "Halfway to Silence." Sarton spoke of this writing project as a period of rich imagery and lyrical poetry, prompted, she felt, by a keen awareness of the starkness of her own old age and the often violent passage of earthly seasons. How age may leave us battered by the endless cycles of nature's unpredictable chaos. We are endlessly vulnerable to the turns of nature, to these elemental forces we superficially understand and do not at all control. We are guests on this earth, and in our bodies, and among the most fragile. We learn this, it seems, every generation.

Sarton's poem settled in my thoughts this morning as I sat at my writing desk, not writing but thinking. Out my window the gentle presence of a warm, sun-filled morning, among the few left in the year, beckoned. Yet I felt pensive, weary from a long weekend of travel. What strange, almost surreal weightlessness; floating between my fatigue and the beauty beyond. The seasons were turning and I was not. Not so much water-logged as life-logged. There will be harsh, challenging months ahead as winter settles in. There will likely be difficulties and setbacks in the weeks and months to come in our personal lives as well.
Light and dark, warmth and cold.
Assertive and receptive, strong and vulnerable.

What is ordinary is this natural state of flux.

The seasons change and change back again. Nature continuously offers us grace and continuity. Sarton writes, "I lift my eyes/ To the blue/ Open-ended ocean./ Why worry?/ Some things are always there." She observes that as nature takes, she gives, and all things find equilibrium. "Sometimes I get too full.../At times taking in,/At times shutting out."

We must open to the ebb and flow of energy, open to the slow curve of understanding, be willing to release our frustration with the incomprehensible. It is our ability to lift our eyes above mayhem and suffering, to look to the constants - to the poet's ocean - that gives us faith in this world. We must trust in the serenity beneath the turmoil; rebuild upon the hope and constancy within the chaos of change. And sometimes, like Sarton, we need to become unavailable to any but ourselves. Empty the tank. "So many lives pour into this house."

I hope that wherever you are in the demands of the day, or the turn of seasons, you love your wildness. Solace and inspiration abide in our place in nature and the world.

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Old Thread, Old Line

ii.
Old thread, old line
of ink twisting out into the clearness
we call space
where are you leading me this time?
Past the stove, the table,
past the daily horizontal
of the floor, past the cellar,
past the believable,
down into the darkness
where you reverse and shine.


- Margaret Atwood, from Down

At a recent creative writing workshop, a gristled middle-aged man wearing a cabled fisherman's sweater, bagged at the elbows, and smudged half-glasses, lifted the nicotine-stained fingers of his right hand and asked me with a bit of a hesitancy in his speech, "How do you know you have an idea worth writing about?"

The pat answer, the one you hear repeated at conference panels, is the question flipped back on itself. "Does it inspire you? Do you feel passionate about your idea? If you do, then dive in and write what only you can."

I have no real problem with this response. In most ways, it is true. Our best ideas are almost always the ones we believe in with all our heart. Passion will lift an idea from flat ink on the page into a three-dimensional vision. It takes our senses, mastery of time, truthful detail, and human drama to tell a good story for our readers. Is passion enough? Can a story be successfully constructed without it?

Writers are a hardy lot, self-disciplined, committed to work even when inspiration fails. Willing to drum up enthusiasm when inspiration lags. I knew my gentlemen with the pipe was asking more than what particular subjects to consider.

He thumped his laptop, asked, "What works?"

He wanted to know what projects would be successful. In truth, I began toying with the ideas in this post back in October of 2013. The business of writing to publish occurs on a level beyond what is a good, passionate story on the page. An acquisitions editor reads for more than the well-executed novel or short story. The editor's interest in a manuscript is often a phenomenon of timeliness, of fresh and unexpected writing, innovative storytelling, the year's published books. Many editors are actively searching for something they can love - that undefinable "word magic" - that something extra that takes a work of private solitary imagination and lifts it into the world of published books and the hands of readers.

The answer to my gentleman's question, the answer to what follows "Are you passionate about your story?", is this simple, not-so-easy qualifier, "Can you write this idea so that others will feel about your story as you do?"

At the end of reading a novel submission, an editor has his or her answer in hand. On this basis, proposals are judged as well. If you are fortunate to have your "yes," what follows is amazing, important, industry interest in your fledgling project. Old-fashioned word of mouth enthusiasm is still the way your editor wins advance support within the publishing house: collecting author blurbs, sending out your book to reviewers, to bookstore owners, and others whose opinions influence what we read. Success depends on readers falling in love. It's quite the journey your unique story, the idea you were so passionate about, undertakes to arrive in Aunt Edna's hands.

You do the work, and the work then takes on a life of its own. Margaret Atwood's imagery of inked lines flying from the table, past the believable to that point at which words shine, is one I return to frequently when I think how grateful I am to the professionals I work with in publishing.

They hear our words. And pass the magic on to readers everywhere.



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How We Work

Richard Long, "Summer Circle." Stone installation.
Just as appetite comes by eating, so work brings inspiration, if inspiration is not discernible at the beginning.
- Igor Stravinsky

It was Emile Zola who kept a motto in his workroom: Null dies sine linea. "No day without line.' He wrote one thousand to fifteen hundred words a day, until in thirty-one years he finished with businesslike dispatch something like twenty-five novels and twenty-three other books. When you have nothing to say, you write anyway, if only to keep in practice.
- Sophy Burnham

Are you working?

Perhaps, like me you've been bouncing back and forth between intense spurts of work and fallow dips not quite procrastination, not quite inspiration. Creating anything is tough. Being your own boss is tough. Combining the two is a little like stalking a bird that comes only unbidden. There are good and not so good work patterns, and ways to break in and out of those patterns. This post adds to my earlier posts on this topic.

There are unlimited and divergent arguments for how and when to write, and methods to write your best. There are "sit down and do it" disciplinarians who manage to scratch out something on the page even in the grip of a creative block to make their word counts. And those, Sophy Burnham points out, who find putting pen on paper (fingers on keyboard) plain good practice. Stravinsky believed that simply beginning was the best catalyst: inspiration often arrives in the midst of aimlessness on the page.

Dream the idea and write only when the spark ignites. Is this you? This approach was famously championed by Truman Capote, who confessed, "I am a completely horizontal author. I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee in hand." Many writers, Walt Whitman and Stephen King to name just two, are staunch advocates of active dreaming: long walks or periods of exercise to spur the creative. Others prepare and wait. Agatha Christie cleared a space on a kitchen table - any flat stable surface would do. Some need a blank wall, a closed door, and zero distraction; others, like Harriet Doerr, begin with visual stimulation - "I have everything I need. A square of sky, a piece of stone, a page, a pen, and memory raining down on me in sleeves."

The key to a successful creative work life begins with the acknowledgment that creative effort is exactly that: creativity plus effort. For a writer, it may feel as though the cart fell before the horse to sit down and pound out 500 words without a clue as to what we are going to say. Yet halfway through that paragraph, our theme may announce itself. Musicians find composition riffs frequently follow routine practices, fingers and mind warmed to the task. Painters uncover a fresh color palette or a stroke that inspires. Dancers choreograph in the process of working out better moves. There is some essential element of art that occurs in execution...sparked or partnered by an equally important guiding concept. An idea without an effort remains a fancy, as effort without direction remains aimless. It's a team game.

But back to Capote on his couch and Zola scribbling out his pages... Both writers are maximizing their capabilities. Both men understand how they work their best. Look within to understand the method to get work done. Desperate for inspiration, do we encourage creative flow conceptually, or anchor work to a defined theme or idea? Is "dead time" mental gestation, or procrastination - a question of sitting down and doing the work? The creative individual has to be self-aware, utterly honest, and willing to own the solution to the problem.

What are your musts? Your preferences? How do you ease into your most creative pattern, or do you just drop in and begin?

It took time to realize I work best balanced between two types of writing: PRACTICE writing (journaling, idea sketches, bits of essays, drafts of book reviews) and PURPOSEFUL writing (putting a theme into structure and on the page.) These distinct tasks engage different skills and wells of creative thinking, and somehow cross-fertilize one another. I shrivel faced with a wall without a window or a bit of nature to gaze on. I do need utter quiet, unless I am editing, in which case easy jazz is best. And on days I just don't want to sit down and do any of it, I often don't. That's the day for a hike, for reading, for lying on Capote's couch.

The big lesson has been to TRUST THE FALLOW time. Days of zero output are days of mental work. Ideas gel. The mess in Chapter 20 untangles in the back of our brain even as we step away and dutifully prune the apple tree. The muse hangs out in the moments before sleep, appears mile 5 of our morning run.

Creativity + Effort. It truly doesn't matter which side of the equation we solve for first.
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Legacy

Ancient Greek Temple, Sicily
MIDDLE AGE
by Robert Lowell

Now the midwinter grind
is on me, New York
drills through my nerves,
as I walk
the chewed-up streets.

At forty-five,
what next, what next?
At every corner,
I meet my Father,
my age, still alive.

Father, forgive me
my injuries,
as I forgive
those I
have injured!

You never climbed
Mount Sion, yet left
dinosaur
death-steps on the crust,
where I must walk.


My birthday was a few days past. This poem came to mind because as Lowell writes, there is that thing that happens when we are grown and we arrive at the age of someone important in our lives. Particularly at times of significance in their lives and in our memories of them. I remember turning 23, thinking "This is the age my parents had me and they became a family." Here am I, just out of grad school, wrangling debt and a bicoastal relocation, and barely mature enough to buy a new car, let alone be responsible for a small human. And then at forty-five, the age my father died, thinking, "But I've only begun to live honestly, to figure it all out." What tragedy, I thought, to exit life before reaching completeness. Whole. Defined somehow. And now I've reached another milestone, the age at which someone close to me was diagnosed with cancer and in that year lost that battle.

Would I be ready to face mortality? Right now? To understand life might end, here and now, as complete or incomplete as it may be? Would I be ready to look at all that I love and those I love...and yield? It's a strange and unsettling emotion, living on; walking in the footsteps of time past the last step of someone loved. Lowell writes, "dinosaur death-steps." The hulking enormity of legacy.

I imagine it's not a bad thing to realize we can't take time for granted. Nor is it a terrible thing to assess where we stand in that rainbow reach of dreams and ambitions. Certain things fall away, other things fall in. In truth, it is more important to me now to seek deep certainty about the world. To grasp this thing - life - and the precious people I share living with. I feel responsible, more so now than ever, for the ones I have brought into this world, and the ones I have buried. Did I get it right? Learn what I needed to learn to make the most of this gift?

It is critical now to excise the redundant, the superficial, the waste, the stupidity, the shallow, the ignorance. Yes, it is possible to live life at the level of a so-called reality television show. Lights, camera, drama. But after this scene, or the next, after the entertainment value is extracted, does the beating heart have anything to add to the wisdom carried forward into the next day? The day after that? Each year I am more fully sure that life - whether we live months or decades or a century - stands as witness to the present. Everything about life is in today. This day. Everything that will fulfill us, sustain us, define us - exists in today. Alongside all that is meaningless space garbage adrift in that galaxy between our ears.

On this birthday, the footsteps I walk sing this to me:
Live, live, live, live, live.

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Summer's Last Song, McDuff


On roadsides,
in fall fields,
in rumpy bunches,
saffron and orange and pale gold...


- from "Goldenrod," Mary Oliver, Blue Iris, 2004

I hiked the bluff trails early this morning breathing in the crisping of the air that in the mountains the coming fall brings to the lingering summer. The trails were absent of a certain joy - absent my dog, McDuff, that sturdy little wheaten Scottie. McDuff passed in December of 2012; the years since marked by the absence of his beautiful presence at my side. Perhaps it's silly to mourn a dog. Perhaps. But today I dedicate my blog post to McDuff, and revisit a post from late summer 2010, when all our trails were still before us.

September 3, 2010:
Yesterday afternoon McDuff and I headed out to the bluff, lulled outdoors by a late afternoon warmth and the pools of mellow light that fell through the trees. As we walked through the wild oat and dried thistle, the hillside around us caught an angle of light in a palette of caramel, dusty tan, and white yellow: the sweetness of summer at its fullest. Fall hovers at the edge of the valley in the crisp mornings and cool nights, but here on the bluff summer holds court.

As we walked, a wordless song played through my thoughts. Duff fell behind, his nose in a rabbit hole. I stopped and stood a moment, looking across the valley. A raven cry drifted up from somewhere near the creek and I was filled with an inexplicable happiness. As if everything truly had its moment, and this moment had now. My thoughts touched on my son and daughter, far away, their lives anchoring down in the new school term at university. I felt the width of time, the slow erasure of geography, the delicate knots and stitches that bind us, one to another.

Here, the final stanzas of Mary Oliver's poem, "Goldenrod" -

I was just minding my own business
when I found myself on their straw hillsides,
citron and butter-colored,

and was happy, and why not?
Are not the difficult labors of our lives
full of dark hours?
And what has consciousness come to anyway, so far,

that is better than these light-filled bodies?
All day
on their airy backbones
they toss in the wind,

they bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,
they rise in a stiff sweetness,
in the pure peace of giving
one's gold away.


May all of you find delight in summer's last song.

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One Common Level


THESE ARE THE CLOUDS
by W. B. Yeats

These are the clouds about the fallen sun,
the majesty that shuts his burning eye:
The weak lay hand on what the strong has done,
Till that be tumbled that was lifted high
And discord follow upon unison,
And all things at one common level lie.
And therefore, friend, if your great race were run
And these things came, so much the more thereby
Have you made greatness your companion,
Although it be for children that you sigh:
These are the clouds about the fallen sun,
The majesty that shuts his burning eye.


I have been greatly affected this week by the dominance of Nature over the circumstances of my small life - the consequences of what we cannot control. We live, in this century, with confidence we are masters of our universe. We build and destroy, take and consume, break apart and redesign nearly everything we can place our hands and minds to. Humans, for better and frequently worse, seem designed by Nature itself to be master manipulators. Free to practice partnered husbandry with the Great Creative over all things biological, physical, and material. If somehow, in the days of Earth, we overstep, waste, or falsify the better outcome, are we to blame?

My answer is yes. If we know the risks even as we commit our transgressions, we are rolling the dice on a complex ecosystem. (And here I am thinking of the recent EPA toxic river spill in Colorado.) What we have taken for granted in our schemes to command the planet have the exact atomic weight and fragility of the diverse elements of life: what takes so long to create, and mature, can be destroyed in an instance by violence, tragedy, or disease. But Nature is renegade. Stand witness, as I have this week, to the perfect storm that is drought, lightning, and wind as it ravages the wilderness with fire...natural disaster strips away the illusion humans are the field marshals of our planet. Nature, too, can destroy as even-handedly as it constructs. The difference between what humans do, and Nature, is the imbalance of response. Man destroys and abandons, Nature destroys but rebuilds.

Last night, in the darkness in the parking lot of a mountain bar, a group of young men began a circular argument fueled by ego, alcohol, and simmering teenage resentments. Their voices rose and their language dissolved into a brute Morse Code of the F word. I felt the sheer destructiveness in their youthful unchanneled energy - human aggression so poorly employed it reached, by theatrics alone, the level of fury – a tornado of pointless and violent engagement. In these forests, some of these raging fires were started with a flung cigarette, a careless campfire. One human animal, aware of the risk yet balefully inviting danger – out of boredom, an abuse of power.

I’m not sure how all these thoughts are connected, but to say that this morning at the beginning of the Priest Lake Triathlon, men and women of all ages and abilities stood shivering on the cold sand at the edge of the lake as the organizers of the race led a benediction to the beautiful wilderness, expressing gratitude for the shift in winds that lessened the smoke for the athletes, expressing their hopes for the fires to end. The race leaders thanked the wilderness for the chance afforded the athletes to test their mettle in harmony with nature. This, the face of the benevolent co-creative.

Lightning, fire.
Cigarette, fire.
Humans, challenging themselves in the arena of the outdoors.
The fragility and the power.
The presumed survivability of the planet.
Until something goes horribly, irreparably wrong. Until we remember what Yeats wrote a hundred years prior - “all things at one common level lie.”

This century - now - we face the challenge to rise above; to identify and engage in better solutions to our weakest tendencies. To lend a hand to the wilderness, to step back from greed, to sheath our axes.

*Note: That afternoon after the triathlon concluded, the winds picked up in the mountains and the fire danger evacuation levels were raised as the fires crept closer to the one exit road and the lake itself. We were evacuated from the mountains and drove south through gusts of dust and fire smoke - arriving home overwhelmed with apprehension and humbleness, stunned by the size of the forests facing annihilation. As of this writing, the Tower Complex fires are continuing to grow in acreage, and the rain, sporadic, has failed to beat down the winds or damp the dry tinder. Over two hundred men and women are battling, in hand to hand combat, the forest fires in Washington. Men and women doing their best under the most dangerous of circumstances. Warriors for survival.

I offer my thanks.


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Synchronicity

Ostia Antica, Italy

For whom and to whom in the shadow
does my gradual guitar resound,
being born in the salt of my being
like the fish in the salt of the sea?

- from "Songs," Residence on Earth, Pablo Neruda

I was born on the 22nd of September. Today is the 22nd of July - the day my first husband, Ken, passed away...and birthday of my second husband, Greg. Reverberations pass through our lives - touched by this one number, 22.

A strange and mysterious, sad and joyful tumbler of emotions accompanies every July 22nd for me. I am twinned in both my past and my present on this one, extraordinary day. Acknowledging loss while acknowledging joy, aware of what is missing and what is found. Greg was aware of the synchronicity of these dates before I was. We had just met; Greg had read THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE and he texted me that day, wishing me peace and comfort, as he knew my son and I were out at Ken's gravesite. Greg never told me that day it was also his birthday, which speaks to his sensitivity and respect for Ken's place in my life, although later it caused me some remorse as his birthday should have been something to celebrate. If only I'd known. Would I have believed it? Would the shared dates have shaken me?

Since our marriage, Greg and I, as well as my children, dance in the complex realities of this date. We've embraced it as uniquely ours. The anniversary of Ken's death is etched on July 22nd, Greg came into life on July 22nd, the 22nd day is the day of my birthday in the fall...it seemed natural that going forward we would chose the 22nd day of any month as our choice for important events and decisions. We married on the 22nd of April. My daughter schedules major exams for this date (she is taking one today), and my son releases new music projects whenever he can on the 22nd.

How fitting that last night my beloved Ken was spoken of in the course of a writing workshop I taught at Auntie's Books on memoir - and I came home that same night to share and celebrate the class with my dear Greg. Today, Greg's birthday, is full of joy. We celebrate the doorway that opened between our lives and loves, and the powerful synchronicity that is for us, the number 22.
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Come to Order

Human judgment can be divided into two broad types: intuitive and rational. When it comes to selecting what to discard, it is actually our rational judgment that causes trouble. Although intuitively we know that an object has no attraction for us, our reason raises all kinds of arguments for not discarding it, such as "I might need it later" or "It's a waste to get rid of it." These thoughts spin round and round in our mind, making it impossible to let go.

I am not claiming it is wrong to hesitate. The inability to decide demonstrates a certain degree of attachment to a particular object. Nor can all decisions be made on intuition alone. But this is precisely why we need to consider each object with care and not be distracted by thoughts of being wasteful.

To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose.


- "The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Declutttering and Organizing," by Marie Kondo

This small book (it is quite compact) has now sold over two million copies, a #1 New York Times Bestseller. What that says to me is that Americans are buried in stuff, desperate for guidance, hungry for personal organization, and stymied by the conflicting messages of "keep" or "toss." As I am an organized type by nature, even as a child my toys and books were boxed or alphabetized, I initially read this book out of curiosity. But half way through I realized I was learning, finally, how to really make decisions about the things I own without falling sway to the usual tired aphorisms such as "Waste not, want not," or "You might need/fit into/get back into this someday," and the ultimate trump card - "But I plowed so much money into that!"

Arranged into fun and cogent sections, with titles such as -
You can't tidy if you've never learned how
Storage experts are hoarders
Selection criteria, does it spark joy?
If you're mad at your family, your room may be the cause
Komono (miscellaneous items): keep things because you love them - not "just because"
Don't underestimate the "noise" of written information
An attachment to the past or anxiety about the future

- Kondo's book explains the deeper principles behind why we keep things, how best to organize them, ways to treasure them (proper storage), and finally, how to live firmly in the present in our day-to-day relationship with things.

I found my personal Waterloo in Kondo's section regarding books (apparently common enough to require its own section). While not so tenacious I finish books I do not like, or hang onto books I'm not sure I'll ever read (and have felt that way about for more than a year), I do keep the majority of books I buy. I consciously curate my book choices, in terms of personal esteem for the work, or with an eye toward collection completion (for example all the works by a favorite author, not just the few I enjoy). I collect print, not e-books (I like the physical beauty of books, and dip into pages at random), so the storage requirements for my books are impressive. Kondo suggests we consider things we own in multiples (e.g. sports equipment, clothes, books, music, toys, etc.) in terms of the pleasure they provide. This nudged me to rethink my approach. Unless I am investing in a complete collection for its future resale value, what is the personal value to me of the complete set? If, say, only one of three books by a certain author brings me genuine pleasure maybe I should let go of the others. The result would be fewer books taking valuable space, and of those books, having the ones I love.

I recommend you take a look at this spunky, practical little book. It is terrific. Kondo genuinely understands the complicated relationships humans have with things. The feelings tied up in objects - the obligation we feel to retain family heirlooms (my husband an I are currently discussing a certain unusable - to us - wood Norwegian cradle), the guilt over past purchasing mistakes (my sister bemoans the trend in jeggings), fear of an uncertain future, and its twin, an intrinsic appreciation of the value in a buck, and that perennially hopeful assessment that borders on wishful thinking (sure I'll be a size 4, go camping/river rafting/repelling again).

Kondo respects the true joy an object can provide. The principles of decluterring are not just to lighten the load (although that has undeniable merit), but to absolutely love and appreciate what we choose to keep in our lives. Now, today.

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Book Review: HRC by Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes

HRC by Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes, Crown Publishers, 2014.

Researched by respected political journalists Jonathan Allen (White House Bureau Chief for Politico) and Amie Parnes (White House correspondent for The Hill newspaper in Washington), HRC roughly covers the time period in Hillary Rodham Clinton's political life from her defeat in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary (to then Senator Barack Obama) through the attack on the Benghazi Embassy in September of 2012, and its contentious aftermath during her tenure as Secretary of State in the Obama administration.

HRC is a thick book, totaling in at 405 pages. A breezy behind the scenes cliff-hanger in places, and a backstory slog in others, HRC the book is much like the political arena it covers. Moving with rapid fire momentum, and employing an open, witty tone at times bordering on insider snark, HRC is primarily an anecdotal narrative compiled with noteworthy attention to timelines, facts, details, and citations. The authors state more than 200 sources were interviewed and freely granted anonymity to discuss their knowledge of Hillary Clinton and the events in this book.

I found HRC engaging, and in places surprising, and, oddly irritating. I felt the book frequently devolved into gossip when not strictly necessary (the events and the woman are fascinating enough). HRC falls off the fence frequently - balancing between a pro versus anti-Clintonism - not quite successfully hitting that sweet spot of observational neutrality. Allen and Parnes seem unable to leave out the easy dig. When the Clintons are funny, as they often are in their hubris and stealth politics, you can't really fault the authors. The Clintons - singularly always still a plural - all too frequently load themselves in the political clay pigeon launcher, with a proverbial "Pull!"

Anecdotes and instances of Hillary Clinton's intellect, tenacity, political paranoia, bull-dogged backbone, sagacity, and fierce dedication interweave throughout Allen and Parnes's political biography with moments of warm reserve, long memory, an endless loyalty, quiet protectiveness of her family, and personal courage. As Hillary Clinton moves forward in her 2016 Presidential campaign - the approximate point in time the book leaves off - the chronology of facts and detail provided by the authors in HRC fill in many of the "Who really is Hillary?" blanks held in the mind of the average voter.

Allen and Parnes predicted Hillary would run in 2016, and I suspect, believe she will be an exceptional, if flawed, contender in the campaign and if she wins the Presidency, the job. By the end of HRC, Hillary's campaign does indeed loom as a given, if not its outcome. To close in a quote taken from HRC:

"I never know what's going to happen next,"she [Hillary Clinton] said. "And I really never have lived my life thinking I knew what was going to happen next. I really try to - I mean it is very John Wesleyan, believe me. I really try to just do the best I can every day, because who know's what's going to happen next? I don't have any idea. So I'm one to just fell like every day I'm being true to my values and I'm contributing in some way, and maybe trying to do some good."



*I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.
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Book Review: The Road to Character by David Brooks

I recently was on travel in the Mediterranean. The point of my trip was to research places in seven countries that border, or are island nations, of this "sea of destiny." Places which figure in the continuum of history as evidenced by patterns of ancient and modern conflict. The antiquities of Greek and Roman classic battle sites - for example Troy (now in modern day Turkey), or the battle between Octavian and the fleet of Cleopatra and Marc Antony in Prevezza - to the sprawling Mediterranean battlefields of World War II in North Africa, Italy, France and Sicily. War history is profoundly emblematic of the impact of leadership and character on events in human history.

I took with me on this journey David Brooks' new nonfiction book, "The Road to Character." I knew his study of human character would reference Eisenhower, Marshall, Augustine among others, and thought it might dovetail nicely with my travels. Brooks is a readable writer, his voice genial on the page. His book is structured around separating what he terms "eulogy character" from "resume character": that is, those qualities rooted deeply within one's nature and upbringing that make a deeply moral and resilient self, versus those qualities primarily developed as window-dressing and acquired for specific goals or situations to serve the ambitions of the ego. A diametric Brooks terms simply as Adam I versus Adam II.

Setting aside for the moment the framing of a discussion of character in religious context, or the mild sexism by today's standards of the choice of the term "Adam" (as in Adam and Eve, coined in the 1965 work by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in "Lonely Man of Faith") as the framework for talking about the deepest aspects of humanity, the real problem for me is that Brooks is writing around a schematic of character he never quite defines and then bolsters with case biographies to substantiate arbitrary conclusions. This makes for a confusing read as the book moves back and forth through history discussing an odd range of men and women selected to exemplify some aspect of personal character development Brooks has deemed important to their ultimate role in events of historical importance.

Brooks organizes his chapters around ideas such as struggle, self-conquest, dignity, love, ordered love, the big me, etc., and case biographies are used to order his arguments about Adam I inner authenticity as opposed to Adam II egoism, and the development of meaningful character. The problem for me is that without Brooks defining "character" beyond its implicit religious or moral codes or otherwise hinged upon command leadership or charity, he's defaulted on something extremely hard to pin down. I found myself yearning for a solid discussion of human character not explicitly tied to historical achievement: a discussion of that slate of human traits that define and empower people to do the things they do. The very word "character" is value loaded. In Brooks' book it is used as a euphemism for admirable, and that which distinguishes someone from the greater masses.

I truly wanted to like "The Road to Character" but the narrative is uneven, and without what I would consider a meaningful metric of "character." In the end, Brooks' study is about grand personalities.

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