Saturday, December 27, 2014

Good, evil, and a new year

As we end another year, I should have either a list of favorites or a profound insight that captures some of what I have learned in 2014.

Since neither is quite possible, I turn instead to a favorite quotation from Solzhenitzen's The Gulag Archipelago. 

The passage begins with a statement of what the Russian author learned from his prison years: how a human being becomes evil and how one becomes good. He says that the "line separating good from evil passes. . .right through every human heart. . . .And even in the best of hearts, there remains a small corner of evil."

"Since then," he continues, "I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: they struggle with the evil inside every human being. . .It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person."

Let us hope that more people in the coming year are able to constrict whatever selfishness, violence, and hatred live in their hearts.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fast and Furious: A reflection on time

Has any period in history felt that it has less time than ours?  That is one of the many significant questions raised in an article by the editors of the journal n+1. It's called "Too Fast, Too Furious."

The great paradox of the modern age (the past 200 years or so) is that, with the development of technology, time is felt as passing more and more quickly. This is what the German theorist Hartmut Rosa calls an "acceleration society."  Why do labor-saving devices that give us more free time also bring feelings of stress and lack of time?

The answer seems obvious: "The number of things you might be able to do becomes impossibly large and expands every day with implacable speed," Rosa says. The more "free" time we have, the more busy and enslaved to time we become. No wonder Thoreau remains enduringly popular.

At no time of year, when consumerism is in high gear, does this feeling tend of being overwhelmed by time become more apparent than the present holiday season, which involves doing innumerable things. One important point missing from the n+1 article is our ability to resist doing more things, by choosing to slow down, by not filling up leisure time with more and more apps, tweets, and other devices and gadgets and finding a space for silence.

In other words, it is certainly possible to be, as the article suggests, overly busy and stressed doing many things and feeling, like Tantalus, never satisfied, either intellectually or emotionally. But is it inevitable that we are trapped in this way?

Rosa speaks of a "frenetic standstill" in which "an eternal, unchanging sameness afflicts the age." Yet, with a minimum of imagination and training, one can enter the timeless present, which does not mean bleak affliction (as Rosa suggests) but a sense of constant presence beyond the rush of time. Meditation, whether Christian, Buddhist, or other, offers a way out of the dilemma Rosa sees as trapping us in an endless cycle of busyness.

Finding time for ourselves, for meditation and reflection, even for quiet reading, requires hard choices (turn off the media, avoid the telephone for a few hours) but seems essential for our inner life.  We can find moments of transcendent stillness and peace in which we are connected to the timeless reality of God.

The advice of Teilhard de Chardin is relevant: allow God "the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete."  Begin, that is, with the recognition that all life on earth is incomplete, that we are restless creatures, and that progress is any area take a very long time. But the goal is ultimately reached, if we "trust in the slow work of God."

There is, in the end, enough time. And if we make time for the timeless presence of God within us, we can, however briefly, step outside the mad rush of time and find the peace we all seek. That, at least, is my hope at this time of Christmas.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Holiday Literary News

We keep warm during the cold months, such as they are in Florida, by writing (among other things). My wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, is also warming herself in the glow of a first-prize award for fiction, from England; and an interview on her life's work, appearing in Sein und Werden, which is British despite the German name ( 

The interview, which appears on p. 22 of the journal, provides insight into the way a skillful poet moves from serious literary work to the more popular fare that she now specializes in: fairy tales for adults.
Her prize-winning story "Carlo's Christmas" is not yet up on Kindle, but I might recommend another winner, ideal for reading aloud to young kids:  "Gusty's Christmas" (99 cents), easily downloaded onto a smartphone, iPad, or Kindle through Gusty is a little, playful wind at the North Pole.

Now that I have shamelessly promoted my wife's work yet again, I can wish all who read this joy during the coming holidays and into the new year. May there be peace in our hearts, at least, if not in the world.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Being Dissatisfied is Good?

In a recent article, Eddie Siebert, S.J. tells the story of an 82-year-old doctor he knew, a man who had practiced medicine for over fifty years but confessed to never really liking medicine.  So why did he become a doctor?  His parents wanted it. He really wanted to write. Sound familiar?

Of course, he could have done both, as William Carlos Williams did, as Walker Percy did, among others in a line going back to Sir Thomas Browne in the 17th century. But that is not the point.

The point of the article is to look at our basic human restlessness and dissatisfaction and see what value they might have. No matter how great a job or home or family or whatever we have, we invariably find something to complain about, some fault to find. We find a certain pleasure, even happiness, in being dissatisfied, knowing that "it could be better" somewhere else or with someone else. The striving is all.

The Boston College theologian Michael Himes, quoted by Siebert, says that dissatisfaction is a good thing. Why?  Well, it "moves us forward, makes us try new things, and deepens our perceptions about the world and ourselves. . . .That restlessness we all feel is a good thing and gets us closer to becoming the person we've always been."

So we realize our full selfhood or potential or identity as persons in striving for joy, even while unconsciously realizing how elusive joy is.

I was reminded of a recent biography I have been reading of Winston Churchill. I was struck by the anxious drive of the young Winston, his burning ambition to fulfill what he saw, grandly, as his destiny. And although he made many enemies in the process of achieving greatness as a leader, he certainly fulfilled his earthly destiny as a leading statesman of the 20th century. His life story reminded me of Teddy Roosevelt's, among many others: men driven by dissatisfaction to overcome handicaps and become the person they have always been.

The great tragedy in many people's lives is that they realize, too late, that they have lived the wrong life, never achieving much happiness.  When Ivan Ilych, in Tolstoi's great story, has such a realization on his death bed, he also comes to an enlightened insight that it is still not too late to make a change: he feels a sense of love, which gives his life purpose and meaning.  Until then, Ivan Ilych had lived a smugly satisfied life; he finally found the wisdom in being dissatisfied at the end, as his soul comes alive.

Happy are those who find joy in their dissatisfaction before it's too late.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Riding Life's Mystery

At this time of the year, when life becomes busy with everyone preparing for the holidays, I have to remind myself that it is also Advent. The weather, the early darkness also remind me to go inward, reflect, and pray. Christmas requires more than decorating and shopping.

This week, in my reflective mode, I ran into several statements by Richard Rohr, a favorite spiritual writer and speaker, whose topic is love in its most transcendent form.

He quotes the Jesuit scientist and mystic Teilhard de Chardin: "love is the very physical structure of the universe." By that he means, I think, that everything in creation (from the cellular level on) desires union with everything else in one sense or another.

This is in keeping, believe it or not, with the medieval vision of Dante, who says at the end of his "Paradiso," that love moves the sun and the other stars. He is not speaking of romantic love but that the life force of the universe is divine energy, which is called love. His idea of God, like that of many contemporary mystics and some scientists, is vast enough to include the idea that everything that exists in part of one whole. Life, being, and love are all parts of what we call God. So we and our fellow creatures and planet are parts of God.  Goodness is built into all that is.

What Thomas Merton and Rohr call my "true self" is who I am in God, and this union is made possible by love. Love is who I am and who I am becoming.

As Rohr says, God is a flow more than a substance, and we are inside that flow. We are allowed "to ride life and love's wonderful mystery for a few years--until life and love reveal themselves as the same thing." This, he says, is the message of the risen Christ: life morphing into a love that is beyond space and time.  We on earth are allowed to add our own energy to the cosmic energy, to "add our breath to the Great Breath."  This is a wonderfully positive insight, reflecting the optimism that informs mystical theology.

I find this a striking and memorable way of looking at life, including death, as a whole. Like God, they are the ultimate mysteries. As a result, if we choose to talk about God, we can't do so as if God were a Being separate from us and from creation--an autonomous Supreme Being. Rather, as Rohr says so well, God is Being itself ("I am who AM"), that is, an energy that moves within itself (Father), beyond itself (Christ), drawing us into itself (Holy Spirit).

In this rich and beautiful formulation, the Christian idea of the Trinity takes on fresh meaning, even though I know too well that all such language is hopelessly inadequate. These are mysteries meant to be contemplated and savored, never understood.

I realize that all of this may make no sense, that it requires volumes of further commentary, with references to the mystics who, in various traditions, have had similar insights over the centuries.  I am grateful to have encountered some of them, like the Franciscan Richard Rohr, and to be lost in the mysteries they present.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Impersonal Training

I recently decided to sign up for the paid services of a Personal Trainer at the fitness center I use so that I could strengthen neglected parts of my body.

I ended up with a competent man who could only be called an Impersonal Trainer. Like so many people I encounter in the health field, he had no "people skills."  He never called me by name or tried to assess my overall ability to do some of the stretches he proposed. And he seemed to be in a hurry. His first comment to me, in the way of personal conversation, concerned how busy he was that week.

And when I saw him later, he didn't bother to ask how I was doing with the new program he had demonstrated because he apparently didn't remember me.

Why do such people enter the healthcare professions?  They are knowledgeable and probably do good work but have no training in what used to be called "the bedside manner." Many seem to dislike working with people!  Luckily, my family doctor and dentist not only refer to me by name but look at me, listen, and talk with me without any sense of rush. They are the models of how medical practitioners should be, but they are the exception.

Most of the technical aides and other doctors I encounter prefer to look at their charts or computer versions of my profile rather than at me. They rarely call me by name; if they do, they make minimal eye contact. They do not pay enough attention to me to treat me as a person.

You might excuse this as shyness, yet there is no excuse for poor manners. You might say everyone is overworked, with never enough time to devote to the person being treated. Yet, in the highly personal area of healthcare, when one must learn about and treat another's body, an awareness of the sensitivity of such a situation should call up some measure of respect--or at least simulated caring.

Rushing is, for me, a sign of disrespect: it tells me that the other person's "agenda" is much more important than I am, and it adds to the anxiety involved in any medical visit--even for personal training at a gym.  Am I not worth slowing down for--even for a few minutes?  Does the money I am spending not warrant some real attention?

I cannot, unfortunately, tell the Impersonal Trainer I met that he is incompetent or complain to his superiors since he is otherwise knowledgeable and well-trained. The session we had was useful.

But, like so many others in his profession, he does not know that anyone in the healing professions should do more than provide information: they care about people.  That should be, in a perfect world, the reason therapists, nurses, trainers, and doctors enter the medical field.

But this is not a perfect world. I just don't like being reminded how imperfect it is quite so often.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The future of football

In 1583, Philip Stubbes described the English forerunner of American football as "rather a bloody and murdering practice than a fellowly sport or pastime." He went on to catalog the injuries of the players:  "sometimes their necks are broken, sometimes their backs, sometimes their legs, sometimes their arms. .  .sometimes their noses gush out with blood" and then goes on, in typical Renaissance style, to pile on more disasters that result from this game:  envy, malice, hatred, fighting, brawling, etc.

He doesn't mention in his long list the thing that bothers me and many others about the sport today: head injuries.  Young men in high school and college, especially, whose bodies are still growing, are subject to life-threatening concussions. The only way this will ever stop is if mothers (as well as dads) forbid their sons to participate. Universities like mine that rely on football to generate alumni support will eventually have to find other means.  This won't come any time soon!

When I bring up the violence of football to certain passionate fans of the game here in Florida, where it is almost a religion, they agree with me, and yet, as smokers used to do when reminded of the dangers of tobacco, maintain the status quo by supporting the bloody game.

In a New York Times piece today by David Leonhardt, I learn that in blue America--those urban areas with heavily Democratic voters and better educated citizens--the number of boys playing high school football is down 15 percent in certain states over the past six years. The decline in Colorado: 14 percent. And 8 percent in Mass. and Maryland.

Of course, every part of America still watches football, but it is hopeful to read in this brief piece that sometimes education does bring enlightenment and that the sons of thinking people are gradually being saved from the violence of the gridiron.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Peace of mind

A brief quotation, courtesy of Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest, author and speaker, that is apt for this blog:

  ". . .peace of mind is a complete misnomer.  When you are in your mind, you are never at peace, and when you are at peace, you are never in your mind but in a much larger, unified field."

Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween Spirit

I just completed my ritual workout at the local Y, where there was no sign of Halloween: not a ghost or skeleton or costume to be found. Everyone was very, very seriously working away on their treadmills.  I wanted to put on the wolfman mask I had in my pocket and say, "it's never to late to have a happy childhood!"

To mark this holiday of silliness, Lynn Schiffhorst (my wife and prolific author of children's stories) has just published her 18th story about Giggle called "Giggle and the Skeletons."  (available on Kindle and other

For those who may not know, Giggle is a ten-year-old ghost, visible to those she likes; she is playful and goes to school and often tries to help people in need. Nothing scary about Giggle, or her neighbor, Mrs. Wigglebone, a skeleton lady with a long red dress who's quite hospitable.

I can't possibly sum up the hilarious antics of this story, with its dogs, kids, ghosts, and skeletons; all I can do is recommend it as fun reading for kids of any age. And be grateful that I live with a creative woman who delights people every day and reminds me that a day without laughter is a day lost.

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Autumn and Mortality

I have lived for the past four decades in central Florida, where autumn does not really exist, where the rhythm of life is distorted.  Here, a few leaves fall, and in January, the sugar maples turn red, but until Christmas time, usually, the weather remains warm, and the air conditioning is on, at least part of the day. So we are deceived with a sense of endless summer.

We are cheated of a rare beauty, not only of autumn leaves and bare branches shaking in the chilly breeze but of nature's slowing down and preparing to die a bit--a healthy bit of memento mori. 

That's why my wife, Lynn, with her great poetic sense, insisted that we visit friends in Newport, Rhode Island in October. We have just returned with pictures of autumn in New England, the best kind, where leaves turn brilliantly red and yellow next to churches and other structures built during the Revolutionary War period.

The tavern we ate in last week dates from 1676, and our hotel was on Purgatory Road. On Farewell Street, we found several ancient cemeteries, their headstones barely visible after so many centuries of salty air. We came for the trees but savored the history, too, and the pumpkins lined up in front of a white clapboard church visited by George Washington.  Autumn does not get any better, any more American.

And anyone looking for a bit of authentic Halloween in old churchyards on narrow lanes filled with dead leaves or in vast, "haunted" mansions should come to Newport in late October, when the beauty of the island sparkles and its great Ocean Drive is quiet, less traveled.

Such a trip was tiring and expensive but worth it for two people who miss the chill of autumn.  We need occasional reminders to turn inward and reflect, as the year, like our lives, nears its end.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Atheism as a religion

I recently met a retired teacher, an intelligent man who, in the course of a conversation, mentioned that he was an atheist. I said nothing, respecting his beliefs (or lack thereof). I wondered at first if he mean "agnostic," then, reflecting on the confidence with which he spoke--and the fact that he was not a listener--I decided, No, he knows the difference, and he has made his choice.

Sam Harris, one of the prominent New Atheists who have published books in the past decade criticizing religion, is a neuroscientist who values reason above all and, while  dismissing any notion of God, prefers not to call himself an atheist.

Yet in his latest book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, excerpts of which I have read, he seems to have found that reason is not enough to explain the meaning of life and reality. It seems that emotion--that often suspect, "effeminate" entity foreign to the scientific mind--has its place, though Harris would not put it this way.  The self-transcendence that he finds in art or nature is not, he insists, irrational. Reason for him is still the dominant player.

Like the Romantic poets of England and the Transcendentalists of the American nineteenth century, and many since, Harris has found satisfaction (happiness?) in some form of transcendence of material reality, independent of religion.  Yet he insists on the primacy of reason, and it is reason, divorced from feeling, that keeps him safely among the "atheists," free from what he sees as the corruptions of religion.

At least, Harris is more open and positive than Richard Dawkins, the British author who has become rich and famous attacking God and belief and who is the subject of a recent New Republic article ("The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins"), which suggests that his atheism has become its own type of narrow religion.  For Dawkins, et al, science is unquestionably right and has all the answers there are to understanding man and his world. He would agree with the behaviorist B. F. Skinner, who once said that the goal of science is the destruction of mystery.

To me, as a theist, the loss of mystery--that sense of awe found in the mystical tradition as well as in art that evokes the unknowable and unknown, is tragic.  The great poets and writers, following Aristotle, always connect head and heart, always write or create with feeling as well as ideas. And at their best, they evoke the unknowable mysteries of humanity in a way that neuroscience will never rival.

Yet thinkers like Dawkins and Harris find reason and science to be supreme and thus cut themselves off from an essential part of the human experience--the emotional need to be connected to something beyond themselves. As such, they cheat themselves, hoping to find a glimmer of something vaguely "out there" while fearful of believing in God. Their rational arrogance blinds them.

In thinking of Harris, Dawkins, and the atheist I recently talked with, I wonder, What God do they not believe in?  The simplistic God "up in the sky" that children learn about?  Why don't they read more widely in philosophy (even medieval thought) and see that God is being itself, the "ground of our being," the inescapable presence that's all around and in us? If they would read Teilhard de Chardin and other scientists who have explored the connection between faith and science, maybe they would be more open to a fuller understanding of the Mystery.

In the meantime, some of the new atheists, like a few in California, feeling the need for some community on Sunday mornings, have established "churches" of sorts, where positive thinking is practiced. It may sound absurd for atheists to meet in "churches," but does it not indicate the human need to go beyond the isolated, rational mind and reach out to others?  And in reaching out to others, and caring about them, are we not embracing love and thereby affirming that life has purpose and meaning? If so, we can talk about, even believe in God.

That organized religion, included Catholicism, has often failed to articulate an understanding of a loving God is clear from a recently influential book by Walter Kasper on mercy, which is influencing the deliberations among the bishops in Rome this week. Cardinal Kasper writes: Theologians have too often had difficulty making sense of God's compassion: "The proclamation of God who is insensitive to suffering is a reason that God has become alien and finally irrelevant to many."

So it is up to believers to articulate a fuller understanding of the mystery of God as the source of existence and compassion in a way that makes sense to a skeptical world: no easy task!

Friday, October 10, 2014

A cynic's guide to social noise

Many of the people I know have tastes in reading (and movies) different from mine.  When a neighbor lent us a favorite video, which not something of interest to us, I returned it recently, with thanks. He asked how I liked it.

Suddenly I was faced with the familiar dilemma of making white lies sound like polite social noise. "Very enjoyable," I said. "Well done." (I had not bothered to play it, knowing it was not worth my time.) He went on: "We loved it. Would you like to keep it a white longer?"

I would rather spend an hour in the dentist's chair, but I smiled politely and said something about being busy getting ready for an upcoming trip (the truth).

This prompted me to think of all the times in the past year or so when I have been confronted with familiar situations, in which the devilish side of me wants to be cynical (though I never am), as follows:

1. I routinely say, "how are you?"  (Do I really want to know? Do I want an organ recital--what a  friend calls chatting with people of a certain age who immediately list their ailments?)

2. "So glad to see you."  (I really mean, I hope this chat is brief and less boring than the last one we had OR I was enjoying the quiet time to think before you appeared.)

3. "You look wonderful" (despite the weight gain/wrinkles/age spots/ missing teeth/ thinning hair)

4. At the end of a phone call, I will say, "So glad you called."  (Please don't do so for another year or more; in fact, not calling at all would be ideal.)

5. Or if I missed a call, probably because I use an answering machine to screen those who phone us: "Sorry I missed your call."  (Actually, I am happy to have had some time to think of a polite way to get out of the invitation you put on my machine; or: I wish you hadn't called at all since I know you always complain about something.)

6. And of course, on receiving a gift, "How thoughtful." (Better than the old "just what I always wanted," which is both sarcastic and trite; yet thinking of me at Christmas is thoughtful, so I should be grateful, but why do you always get things for me that either don't fit or that I don't want? Give me cash!")

Ah, the pain of being polite and feeling guilty for being hypocritical; yet the truth would be worse than the lie, however much fun it might sometimes be for me to be honest.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Grammar and Style: an Example

The noted linguist Steven Pinker in his new book The Sense of Style is quoted on the internet as objecting to those grammatical purists who insist on correcting dangling modifiers, as when a sentence opens with a verb phrase that has no modifier:  "Driving down the road, the cat escaped."  Who is driving? The cat?

He asks, where did that rule prohibiting such modifiers come from, and what is its basis?

Although I don't think of myself as a purist or a stickler for "rules," I am the co-author of a textbook of grammar, The Practical Handbook for Writers (7th ed.), which advises writers to avoid the practice of having modifiers "dangle."  Of course, in spoken English, or in writing that is meant to sound colloquial, the convention (or "rule") can easily be overlooked.

Pinker says that fine stylists "use dangling modifiers all the time."  In Britain, perhaps many do, but not in American usage. If they are fiction writers, or journalists trying to capture someone's speech, perhaps they can get by with a dangler; but in this country, a good editor of any respectable journal or book publisher should suggest that the following danglers be re-worded:

   To become a nurse, at least four years of study work are required. (To become a nurse, you need/one needs to study at least four years.)  Why put the main clause in the passive voice, which prompts the dangling modifier?

   Turning the corner, a beautiful view awaited me (Pinker's example) which should be: "As I turned the corner/Turning the corner, I saw/encountered a beautiful view."  Or, if he wants to use the passive voice, "As I turned the corner, a beautiful view awaited me." Someone has to do the turning!

Or, to edit the cat example above:  "While we were driving down the road, the cat escaped."

Pinker wonders why anyone would make such a change, asserting that "there is no rule prohibiting a dangling modifier."  There is, I respectfully suggest, a logical reason--something better than an artificial rule--since the "driving" or other verbal has to modify a human subject who is doing the driving or turning or whatever. The issue is one of logic, the basis of the American convention. The Brits don't seem to worry about this problem.

It's true that there are several old-fashioned "rules" inherited from Latin practice in the 19th century that no longer apply in written English, such as "never end a sentence with a preposition" or "never split an infinitive."  Prinker has every right to question such usage in the 21st century.

But I hope editors and writers do not apply Pinker's rejection of the dangling "rule" to everything they write.  I would re-word any dangling modifier to make it less jarring, more logical and therefore more grammatical in anything I write for publication--unless I wanted to sound casual or colloquial.  But then, I am a hopelessly American purist.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The silence of a Polish film

One of the striking things about the memorable Polish film Ida is its silence. Scenes unfold without much music and in square frames reminiscent of films from 1962, when the story is set. This keeps the characters generally distant from the viewer, shadowed in the mystery that informs them.

The main character, who is called Anna, a novice about to take final vows in a Catholic convent somewhere in Poland, is told by her only relative, Wanda, that, in fact, the young woman's name is Ida Lebenstein. She was a Jewish child taken from her parents during the war and raised in an orphanage.

She responds to this, and to all the other surprises that await her, with a quiet reserve and stillness as well as with wide eyes. As she and her aunt travel in search of the family's burial place, we are shown, amid the grim Polish countryside, glimmers of light and meaning as one chapter in the history of European suffering is illuminated with a remarkable eloquence.

The characters have mysterious depths and raise unanswered questions, and the narrative generates a restrained suspense. This is not a movie with broad appeal--unless you are looking for something artful and purely cinematic with a spiritual depth.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Perfect Novel (?)

I have just completed a remarkably fine novel, widely unknown, from 1965, now reprinted by Vintage Classics: Stoner by John Williams.

How is it possible that the books of this American author, who died about twenty years ago after teaching at the University of Denver, are not better known?

I tend to avoid academic novels, set on university campuses--with the exception of David Lodge's work--because I have endured in real life enough of the petty conflicts and rivalries found in universities.  But Stoner, although set on the University of Missouri campus, transcends this genre.  It transcends most of the novels I have read in style, subject, and that elusive thing called tone.

The narrative proceeds with a deceptively simple clarity, touched with the tone of ironic detachment found in Tolstoi's masterpiece, The Death of Ivan Ilych, the only work that compares to Williams' novel, even though the American work lacks any religious or transcendent meaning in its powerful account of the ordinary life of an ordinary man..

Like Tolstoi's novella, Stoner ends with the death of its protagonist, a professor named William Stoner, whose passing is announced on the first page in an amazing sentence:  "Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers."

I defy any reader of that first page to do anything but read on, even though the bleak sense of disappointment that Stoner finds in his life evokes great sadness. But it is the sadness of great tragedy, as a man who doesn't believe he has made any difference in the world finds that an inner life pushes through the hard surface of desperation, allowing him to see that love--both the love of literature and the lost love of one woman--give a few glimmers of meaning and purpose to his life.

Stoner, who begins life on a Missouri farm, is a stoic figure whose sense of wonder remains hidden in him, with rare glimpses of light penetrating the darkness around him. His family are half-frozen by fear and beaten down by loneliness: the world of Stoner is grim and full of tragic inevitability. Yet the main character, despite his great reserve and quiet desperation, manages to assert himself in the academic battles of the University while quietly accepting the fact that his marriage, like much of his life, has been a bitter disappointment.  (I can't help but think of Thoreau's line: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.)

This simple story is told in a prose style that is plain yet quietly poetic, a perfect reflection of its protagonist. Stoner's life is told dispassionately but so eloquently that we sense its universal power, for the themes are nothing less than love and death.  Williams himself referred to his novel as "an escape into reality," and there is something inexpressible about the reality that we uncover as we read the novel, transfixed by its calm, lucid, controlled surface. And by Stoner's dual awareness of himself as living somehow outside his ordinary self, in those timeless moments he finds in his reading that bring him a sense of identity and satisfaction.

Stoner has been called a perfect novel; it is one that I look forward to re-reading more than once for its subtlety and tone, for its mastery of character and style.  

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Looking Back (in amazement and revulsion)

In recent weeks, I have been reading about the Mitford sisters, enjoying the lively memoir by Jessica Mitford, Daughters and Rebels (1960), which led me to look at the lives of the other five daughters and the notorious family  that made weekly headlines in British newspapers in the Thirties.

Just this week, the last of the Mitfords, Deborah (Dowager Duchess of Devonshire) died at 94. She was the youngest daughter of Baron Redesdale and lived a quiet life presiding over the grand country home, Chatsworth, where she collected Elvis memorabilia. Several of her sisters  carried eccentricity to much more alarming heights. Four wrote books about the family, creating the Mitford Myth.

Jessica became an American and a Communist (and later a civil rights activist) after running away to Spain to fight in the civil war with Churchill's nephew, with whom she eloped; this happened just after her sister, Unity, became "Hitler's English girlfriend," having become a pistol-carrying Nazi, complete with black leather outfit and swastika.  The most glamorous sister, Diana, also met and adored Hitler: she left her husband and two sons for the fascist leader Oswald Mosley. She was married in home of Joseph Goebbels in 1936, with the Fuhrer in attendance. Diana and Mosley were interned in prison during World War II for treason.

So much for the three main ones. Two lived quietly. Another, Nancy Mitford, wrote fourteen books, including fiction based on the family and its tyrannical father, whose hated of foreigners and overall bigotry was something the children absorbed in various degrees yet also rebelled against.  Each of them carried the title The Hon. before their names, but few were honorable: they come across as arrogantly assured of their own privileges and opinions.

Like their parents, they never apologized for what they did because they felt they were always right. I refer mainly to Diana, the worst of the bunch, who until her death at 93, never altered her view that Hitler was wonderful. Her obit called her "A charming, unrepentant Nazi who was fatally loyal to her Blackshirt husband."  She and Unity, who shot herself in the head when England declared war on Germany, were described in one book as representing the "frivolity of evil."

As I look at this family and this period, when so many in the upper classes in Britain were also fascist or pro-German and anti-Semitic  (even when England went to war against Nazi Germany), I have many questions about what the origins of such attitudes.   How much of the Mitfords' hate came from their upbringing, how much from their upper-class milieu, how much from their need to be independent?  What leads talented, bright, attractive people to such dangerous extremes?

Jessica, whose life is the most colorful and amazing, sensibly says, "We delighted in matching wits with the world and this became a  way of life, an ongoing battle against our class."

Although these class distinctions are less sharp in today's world, similar kinds of anger and hatred are alive and well in Europe today, where again anti-Semitism is on the rise and where terrorists are poised to strike at what we call the civilized world.  Can we not learn lessons from recent history? If not, we need the humility to recognize, unlike those now-dead English aristocrats, that we are not always right.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

When writers don't write

As I finish my first novel, hoping to end the long process sometime next year, I find myself taking breaks, sometimes weeks at a time, when I do no work.  I feel no compulsion to hurry since I have no deadline, no editor or agent breathing down my neck (fortunately). I can take my time and think.

That's what writers have to do. Too often I suspect less experienced writers feel obligated to finish whatever they start as soon as possible, recalling their school assignments or the deadlines in their past. My wife, Lynn, has finally finished a short story that she began more than ten years ago. It needed time. Like me, Lynn thinks about her work off and on all the time.

Like much of our writing, various pieces of fiction sit on the back burner, simmering. We can lift the pot whenever we wish and when we do, we will invariably add, delete, and polish what we find there. Other pieces of writing are on the front burner: a month or two is enough time for them. (Non-fiction tends to require much less time: there are no characters to worry about, fewer descriptive details to add or delete, etc.)

So I was glad to find on Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog a piece by Bill Hayes, advising writers not to write: not only can it be good for one's writing, he says, but it can be good for the writer. Some respondents were surprised at this advice, yet it is in keeping with what I have long been telling my students.

A reader responding today to the post by Hayes says, "I can go for months without writing a single word and then suddenly out of the blue I get inspired and write dialogue. . ." He/she reminds us that writing is about thinking: "To feel good about my writing, I have to spend time away from the keyboard and journal. I have to be curious about the things happening around me. . ."

In other words, a piece of writing, of any length, has to breathe. Horace, or one of the other ancient Roman writers, advised letting any manuscript rest for nine years before finishing and publishing it.

That's a bit extreme. But it's true that the overall process cannot be rushed; the creative-thinking activity comes at odd times and places (that's why I have little pads of paper in most rooms of the house since I never know when I will have an idea that I overlooked, a comment I need to add, a description that's missing in my draft of a novel).

To those who face writer's block, I think the advice here about slowing down, enjoying the process, and not feeling pressured to go public with your work would be helpful. Isn't much fear about the writing process based on worry about being able to complete it "on time"?

Being a writer is more than just writing: it becomes part of your life.  Or I should say your "lives"--the real, everyday world of reality around you and the imagined reality of the story you are creating. I know that my work benefits from multiple revisions, each one coming after a suitable hiatus so I can read what I have composed with a fresh perspective.  None of this can be hurried.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Students or Sheep?

What is the point of going to college? This has become a key question for many young people and their parents as costs increase, jobs grow scarce, and the old ideal of a liberal education seems, to many, outdated. This is one of the central questions raised in a new book by a former Yale professor.

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaninful Life by William Deresiewicz comes, amid some controversy, as a welcome addition to the ongoing debate about higher education.

Like the author, I, too, began college (not an elite one) because it was the thing to do for someone who had attend a college prep school, with only vague goals in mind as to what I might do with a degree. Today's students tend to be more practical: finding majors that will land them jobs--and being pushed on all sides to do so, while hoping along the way to pick up some knowledge and have a bit of fun, too.

Higher education, even in the Ivy League, has become commercialized with students, according to Deresiewicz, too busy jumping through hurdles to analyze what they want, too busy developing a resume to enjoy the life of the mind. Too stressed to meet the wide variety of people and ideas that will help them develop their true selves. Instead of four idyllic years of cultivating the mind, they live with a fear of doing things that might put their future careers at risk.

The author talks about problems found at state universities, too, the kind of school where I taught for many years: students with little time to make real friends, professors geared to research rather than teaching, and a pressure to succeed that often lands students in the over-crowded mental health center on campus.

The students the author encountered at Yale were, he says, smart, driven to succeed but timid, anxious and lost: great at what they are doing but with no idea why they are doing it. What seems missing is an over-arching vision of educational goals, the kind of humanizing education we once spoke of in academe--and tried to inculcate in our curricula until recent decades when careerism took hold.

Deresiewicz found students on their high-pressure treadmill to be cheerfully confident but lacking in the moral purpose he sees as basic to education: the combination of introspection, observation, critical thinking and reading that leads one to build an individual self.  Of course, a four-year program of study is only the beginning of such a life-long quest, and perhaps the author overemphasizes the moral purpose of a college education. 

If so, the emphasis is welcome since the other two reasons for college education--commercial and cognitive (acquiring information and learning about critical thinking)--have become dominant in the competitive collegiate world.  In these two areas, the author says, elite universities have excelled, while ignoring the moral-philosophical (or liberal arts) ideal that is sadly missing from what many schools provide and what most students want today.

Are today's students "excellent sheep"? Perhaps. And perhaps it's impossible for any quality institution of higher education to be all things to all people, providing the freedom of a humanistic, moral education as well as satisfying the practical demands of parents and students.

But perhaps our universities are doing a better job, overall, than this welcome and provocative and very readable book suggests.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A time for wacky things

Today, after reading several cartoons and an article in the current New Yorker, I found myself in a silly mood, interested in several of the wild and wacky things I have been reading about (or have collected recently).

The cartoon that brought on this delight was a picture of "God" doubting the existence of man. Then I read a tiny notice about a current NYC production of Beckett's Waiting for Godot in Yiddish: absurdity raised to the highest power since hardly anyone speaks Yiddish anymore.

The news, when it's not tragic, is often hilarious.

The cartoon reminded me of a book title from years ago: "Is there life after birth?"  And I thought of the student who spelled Judaism on an exam "Judy-ism."  This is one of many bloopers that have tickled me.

I have been reading about the Mitford family of English aristocrats and eccentrics, prominent in the 1930s, when the head of the family, Lord Redesdale, to cut down on expenses, did away with napkins at the dinner table. Guests who spilled even a drop of food were loudly attacked by the host as "filthy swine."

The antics of his daughters were often serious: one of them became notorious as Hitler's English girlfriend and shot herself in the head when war broke out in  1939; unfortunately, she lived eight more years, brain damaged. This young woman, Unity Mitford, was conceived in the mining village of Swastika, Ontario.  Jessica, one of her sisters, to get even with the Fascists in the family, became a Communist and an American; she (unaware of the inconsistency of a Communist engaging in capitalism) bought a bar in Miami where she and the husband she eloped with in the midst of the Spanish Civil War worked.

Other bits of amusing trivia:

  •   At the funeral of Charles Darwin in Westminster Abbey, the scientist's son, feeling a draft, removed his black gloves and placed them on his bald head, where they remained for the rest of the ceremony. (Only in England)
  •  I have a friend who is a noted expert on canaries; when he is not judging canary shows, he rides roller coasters in various countries as a member of the American Coaster Society.
  • A man from Florida drove 17,000 miles a few years ago to earn a place at the World Duck Calling Contest (considered the Super Bowl of duck calling).
  • In Australian slang, a "duck's dinner" is a drink of water with nothing to eat. (That seemed relevant.)
  • When a cat named Help was lost, her owner ran down the street calling "Help!" until she got assistance (but no cat, apparently).
  • When Alex, an African gray parrot died in 2007, he was given an obituary in newspapers around the world as well as 6,000 messages of condolence sent to his owner, a researcher on the intelligence of birds. Alex had become famous from numerous TV appearances.
I am not making these up!  If anyone reading this has a bit of wacky bit of reality to share, send it to me at

Monday, September 1, 2014

All in the Family

As the literary agent and publicist for my wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, I thought I would use this post to announce, to parents,grandparents and others who like to read to children, that she has published several new "read-aloud" stories on Kindle.  You may find on her Amazon page something inexpensive as a gift for a child in your family. There are many titles to choose from.

These include two stories about a little wind that lives at the North Pole and plays tricks on people:  "Gusty Wants More Time"  and "Gusty Plays his Tricks."  Gusty, of course, is the little wind (a challenge for any illustrator).

Several other books feature Giggle, a little ghost who goes to school (she's in the 4th grade) and enjoys helping people.  This week, a reviewer, Jaclyn Bartz (author of The Retired Tooth Fairy) wrote this about Giggle Goes to the Moon, a collection of three stories:

     "These sweet stories are a great addition to any child's bookshelf, or, in this case, Kindle library.  Lynn Schiffhorst tells each tale in a precise, fast-paced manner. . . a well-executed, well-crafted work."

The full review by Ms. Bartz is at  The reviewer notes the positive attitude toward a disabled child in one of these Giggle stories.

Another reviewer on Amazon had this to say about Lynn's book, "A Cat and Mouse Christmas":
    A lovely story to add to this magical season!

If my followers and/or their friends are thinking about giving books to children in the coming months--especially books to be read to children--I hope they will consider some of Lynn Schiffhorst's special Kindle editions, which require a smartphone, Ipad, or Kindle.  Most are priced at 99 cents.
All are listed on her page.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Problem with Facebook

In trying to advertise my wife, Lynn's, books on Amazon Kindle, I am told by all those who know to use Facebook, which I have long resisted, to get the word out: network and connect, I am told.

Having had my email hacked three times and my credit card number stolen more than once, I am very cautious about releasing any more information than necessary about my life, such as my photo and my friends, to the waiting world. I have no need to share the details of what I ate today or where I shopped or even what I read with strangers.

Facebook's stated purpose, apparently, is to provide the world with access to me, my life, my appearance, and my friends, who probably don't want to be bothered being connected to me via the internet and more than I want to be automatically connected with them--unless I write to them.

So I was interested today to read that a class-action lawsuit has been filed against Facebook, with 60,000 co-signers (so far).  This came in a piece by Phoebe M. Bory on the issue of parental overshare--a new term to me but one immediately made clear: an open discussion in print or online about one's parents or children and their private problems. At issue is a father writing in the Atlantic about his young son's exposure to porn on the internet. 

Does everything in our lives have to be shared with everyone else? This is only one of the questions Bory raises:  how would the child feel at a later time in her or his life about parents going public about such a problem?What authority does anyone, including a parent, have to share intimate details about another's life?

Even when names are changed, readers are put in the awkward, voyeuristic position of learning about what should remain in the family, and the children involved are at risk.

The line between private and public in this era of social networking has to be more firmly drawn.

As for me, I now have a more substantive reason for avoiding any involvement with Facebook.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Problem with Maureen Dowd

I've sometimes wondered why the New York Times maintains Maureen Dowd as a regular opinion columnist. But then I realize that she attracts readers, like me, with her brand of acerbic wit and gossipy sarcasm.

No one takes her too seriously, and I trust she knows this. Today's column, for example, about Mr. Obama is another predictable iteration of her stereotyped view of the President: he is an aloof loner, who seems bored, like a bird in a gilded cage. She has played this tune for at least five years.

As with everyone who reduces complex issues to simplistic formulas, Dowd likes to skewer and satirize Obama, just as she stereotyped his predecessor, whom she called "W," and Mr. Clinton before him. And she has an attitude toward Hilary that has already been reworked many times. Attitude always replaces ideas for Dowd.

This is not to say that her criticism of Obama is without foundation.

As an intellectual who too often shuns wheeling and dealing a la LBJ, Obama is probably a political failure in a key area: negotiating with Congress. But he has been so reviled by members of the GOP, so resolutely opposed on nearly every issue, that he is given little respect as chief executive and even less leeway to get laws enacted.  And as a man of integrity who provides steady leadership, Obama deserves better treatment.

Rather than bored and detached, Mr. Obama seems to me to be exhausted; and who wouldn't be, given the problems he faces?

Like his predecessors in modern times, he has an impossible job and, as a person, is too complex to be reduced to the stereotypes that Dowd thrives on.

For eight years or more, she played, over and over, one theme with George W. Bush: his imagined rivalry with his father. It was all about the Bushes. Ideas about what went wrong in that presidency according to Dowd were replaced by snide attitude and the gathering of Washington gossip.

So readers find her columns often entertaining in that they provide supposedly the inside scoop on pols. What they don't find are original ideas or political analysis or suggested solutions to world problems.  What they are given is slick, superficial, and shallow.

Dowd has turned political writing into show biz.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The value of silliness

At a time when I have been overwhelmed by sad news--from the depression and suicide of Robin Williams to the racial turmoil in St. Louis to the major crises in the Mideast--I was glad yesterday to have lunch with a friend who reminded me of the importance of comedy and laughter, even silliness.

My friend likes puns and the Three Stooges more than I do.  He shares my enthusiasm for silly cat videos and felines dressed up in ridiculous outfits on birthday cards.  He shares my interest in funny names of real people, which I collect as an exercise in trivia. And he joins me in presenting programs in our community that involve humor.

One of these, going back to 2005, is Historical Humor and Wit, in which we quote notable people saying ridiculous or witty things, from Mark Twain and Winston Churchill to more recent American politicians. Our theme: history is never dull since it is the story of people who often say wacky things.

The other program I have created is called Fractured English, indebted to people like Richard Lederer, who collect the blunders and bloopers of students, sign makers, editors of church bulletins, among others. The unintentional misuse of our language is a constant delight, and even more valuable for us is hearing a crowded room ripple with laughter when my friend and I take turns reciting some of the many funny or silly things we have unearthed.

My most recent research has been into church-related humor, where the sacred and serious context of religion makes the blooper especially funny. One example from a church bulletin: "The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of all kinds and can be seen in the church basement."

The use of a simple hyphen between 'cast' and 'off' would prevent the misreading, but I am grateful to the person who left it out.  Things like this, even cat-related stories, bring a needed smile to my face, reduce tension, and provide some distance from the tragic news of the week.

Human nature cannot bear too much reality, T. S. Eliot wrote. He was thinking of reality in a different context, but the basic idea fits here: we need as much silliness and childish humor as we can handle. Thank God for the people who send me cartoons and jokes via email--and for the puns and other bits of humor, however silly, that feed the soul by keeping us in balance.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Boundless Curiosity: A Great Travel Writer

To be a great travel writer, you need, first of all, great material. Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose life of adventure made him one of the major travel writers of the 20th century, found such material on the road, where he discovered his career almost by accident.

Fleeing an unhappy life in England at the age of 18, he set out in 1933 for a walking tour of Europe, from Holland through Germany, into the Balkans and Greece, ending in Istanbul.  Along with way, he became a self-taught master of several languages and a self-educated cultural historian who saw that his unique experiences could provide material for books. So he created his own literary career.

Paddy Fermor, as he was known to everyone, was a romantic adventurer who was curious about everything, incapable of being bored, as he repaid his many hosts along his youthful journey with songs and stories, talking long into the night.  Some people eventually found him a bit of a show-off, Artemis Cooper says in her superb biography of Fermor, but the ladies loved this handsome, talented fellow who charmed shepherds and gypsies as well as Eastern European nobility, who opened their castles to him.

A  vagabond, he often slept in barns or monasteries or in open fields, weather permitting, but he was the type of guy who always made his way to the  top in any society, despite his ragged clothes.  With letters of introduction, he found his way into Mount Athos as well as into a ball at the British embassy in Athens, where he met a Romanian princess, with whom he lived for several years.

One reviewer (Barnaby Rogerson) says that Paddy was a consummate freeloader who paid for the chance to stay with counts and barons in their hunting lodges with his great energy and talent for song, dance, poetry, talk, and other men's wives. But Paddy was a great reader, too. He mastered French, Romanian, and Greek along the way and ended up living in Greece; during the Second World War, he became famous as the leader of a the group that abducted a Nazi General on Crete and spirited him away to Egypt.

I was fascinated by Fermor's account of Germany in 1933, when people even in the smaller cities he visited were clicking heels and giving Nazi salutes within months of Hitler's take-over of the country.   Although sometimes taking a train or boat, he mainly walked from place to hilly place, finding refuge where he could. His hosts generally found him a charismatic talker who saw conversation as an art, and he remained friends with many of the people he met along the way. 

His journey goes from isolation and poverty--he lived on practically nothing and had no money to repay anyone--to luxurious accommodations. Once, after an isolated spell in the Carpathian mountains, he meets a rabbi who speaks only Yiddish, then spends the night with a man who owns a dancing bear that he holds onto all night as they try to sleep.

In Vienna, he resorts to selling pencil sketches door to door to earn a few shillings; in Hungary, he meets a Count who reads Proust; and so it goes, with nubile girls, noblemen and swineherds as companions. He recites Shakespeare in German, memorizes Latin, Greek and French poetry, which he recites at the end of long dinner parties.

Above all, he notices the details of things and describes them memorably. based on his notes, Fermor later writes A Time of Gifts, A Time to Keep Silence, The Broken Road, and ten other books of memoirs and letters, recounted in what is at times a formal style that favors Latinisms ("penumbra" is a favorite word) that today's readers might find quaint. Of course, the world he describes is long gone--all the more reason his work is so fascinating and valuable.

The energy and curiosity of Paddy Fermor is boundless, as is his love of people and language. He is one of those born storytellers I would love to have met: he made his life into a work of art.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Respecting others' beliefs

I was surprised to see in another of his amazing interviews that Pope Francis listed ten steps to happiness, one of which begins: "Don't proselytize."  We should, he said, inspire others by our example, by dialogue, not by using pressure or persuasion. "The worst thing of all is religious proselytizing. . ."  Wow.

This is refreshing to hear. It reminds me of the approach used 400 years ago in China by the Jesuit scientist Matteo Ricci, who felt (despite the wishes of Rome at the time) that heavy-handed missionary preaching was not the way to attract people to Christianity.  As a result, his mission was a modest success, but his work as a cultural ambassador is honored in China, even today.

I gave a talk on Ricci in May and wish that I had been able to include the Pope's statement since I sensed that my largely secular audience was not entirely comfortable hearing about a Jesuit from Italy who went as a missionary to the East. In fact, Ricci and his companions were, unlike many missionaries then and since, interested in learning from their hosts and, in this case, in contributing to Chinese knowledge. They were sensitive enough to their host culture not to impose Christian teaching on the natives.

Ricci was a prodigious translator of basic Western texts into Mandarin and gradually became recognized, even by the last Ming Emperor, whom he never saw, for his scientific achievements.  Ricci's heroic life one day might lead to his canonization--he is now on the track to sainthood--and his work is in keeping with the approach of his fellow Jesuit today, Pope Francis, who has learned in Argentina some invaluable lessons about how to deal with people.

If only some of the leaders today in the Mideast and other hot spots could learn the lesson of dialogue and mutual respect. . . .

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Evil and the Will

In the back of my mind recently, when I wrote about a strong-willing Irish friend, was the more serious, eternally mysterious question of human evil and to what extent it results from our free will.

Of course, Hitler comes to mind. Just recently, I found an article by Ron Rosenbaum, author of a new edition of Explaining Hitler.  Having studied his subject more thoroughly than most people, Rosenbaum concludes that what made Hitler want to do what he did remains ultimately unclear.

Will power he had in abundance, and hatred. Some (Alice Miller, the Swiss psychoanalyst, among others) have argued that young Adolf's upbringing--being beaten by his father--led to violent hatred and shame, compounded by the defeat of Germany in World War I.  Others have seen Hitler as a demon or monster or madman who ultimately wanted to destroy himself and ruin his beloved Fatherland.

It is interesting for me, having taught a course in evil that put emphasis on the choices we make, to find Rosenbaum concluding that it wasn't a combination of external forces that led Hitler to become Hitler: "it required him to choose evil. It required free will."

The full source of the "continuous series of choices" that Hitler made in his life may never be understood. The author says we may never know what effect an alleged hypnotist had on Hitler after the first war. So rather than indulge in endless speculation, Rosenbaum, lacking definitive proof of the potent combination of personal and social forces that drove him to annihilate millions, concludes that "we may never know with certainty what made Hitler Hitler."

This means that some basic issues about the war and the Holocaust remain uncertain since Hitler's racial war was unlike any other. Hitler arrived on the world scene at just the right moment, in a country eager for authoritarian control and willing to participate in his evil monstrosity.

And yet the greatest evil of the modern era remains, like so much human evil, a mystery.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The power of the will

Never underestimate the power of the human will.  I was reminded of this recently when our Irish-born friend Mary turned 93.  She celebrated with her family on Long Island, then returned home to Central Florida last week.

We called her to invite her to a birthday lunch.  "Oh, no, thank you," Mary said. "But I want you to come to a little dinner party I am having this weekend. And don't say it's too much trouble."

And so we went, and so, as usual, Mary did all the work, even refusing to have us help with any of the food or clean-up.  She was determined, apparently, to prove to the world, and herself, that she could triumph over pain (arthritic and otherwise) and continue to entertain as she always has.

Last year, Mary fell twice and was briefly hospitalized; but, having survived the London Blitz and raised four daughters while working hard in England and New York, she is tough; and she has little use for doctors.

She is, at 93, planning a redecoration of her condo before more family members come to visit her.  She was born to be a generous hostess, but she was also born with, or developed, a strong will that almost nothing seems able to defeat.

If I should live to be 93, I hope I carry on with the spirit of Mary.  When I have pains and aches, I always think of this inspiring, determined woman, being grateful to be among her many friends.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Being Published

For every writer, news of an acceptance is a major event. To be published after months of labor, usually alone and without any recognition, is a welcome and necessary validation for any writer, who now becomes an author, given the authorization of publication.

No matter how much I have published over the years--from short reviews and articles to books--I still get a special thrill when a publisher says, "Yes." Or as happened yesterday, when the editor of the Provo Canyon Review wrote to me, "we love your story and would be very pleased to publish it in our next issue."

If they are pleased, I am very pleased because I am new to fiction writing, and the story in question, "Losing It," is a comic piece loosely modeled on the work of James Thurber. It concerns an absent-minded high school history teacher, who has a conflict with his principal--and by extension the state of education in America today. I never knew, even from the three seasoned readers who critiqued it, if it was really good, genuinely amusing and believable.

Now the self-doubt can fade and I can happily anticipate seeing the article appear in the Review, probably next week online at

Yet, for me, getting the acceptance is what matters, the actual publication being almost secondary. Almost.

Here, to whet your appetite, is the opening sentence, which I worked on for some time (maybe it will motivate you to look up the Provo Canyon Review and read the whole story and have some laughs):

    On a  sparkling Florida afternoon in winter, as George Eliot Craine was stirring his spaghetti sauce, with his back to the open window over the kitchen sink, his pants fell down, along with his shorts, and it took it took him a full minute to put down his wooden spoon, wipe his hands, and retrieve his clothes from the floor--time enough for his wife, Martha, who was unloading groceries from the car, to see, beneath his apron strings, his naked butt.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Fussing with Sentences

As I teach my summer writing workshop while working on a piece of fiction, I continue to think about style and the way fussing with sentences is at the heart of prose style.

Four years ago, I would tell my students that my experience has convinced me that I am strictly a writer of non-fiction, having published various books, articles, reviews, etc., some academic, many not.

Now I can say that I am having fun as a fiction writer. But I am learning that my enthusiasm for long, cumulative, rolling sentences that have the elegance, surprise and wit that people like Gay Talese bring to them does not always apply to fiction as it does to literary non-fiction.

At least, not when the point of view is first person. In my present draft of a novel, as in my first published story, I have my narrator-protagonist talk directly to the reader, and only rarely can he use the kind of sentences I admire. They are too artful, too literary.

My second story, however, told from an omniscient point of view, can put such sentences to good use, but still sparingly.  I found that the following sentence about an obnoxious high school principal named Mrs. Wicker (who is challenged by a veteran teacher named Crane) should be broken into three sentences.

I wrote: Mrs. Wicker, her mouth flung open, her penciled eyebrows lost in the furrows of her wrinkled forehead, was rendered speechless by Mr. Crane's finest hour.  I was pleased with that sentence until I listened to it.

My revision:  Mrs. Wicker gaped, her penciled eyebrows disappearing into the furrows of her wrinkled forehead.  She was rendered speechless. This was Mr. Crane's finest hour.

I like the force of the opening verb 'gaped' and the punch given to the second and third sentences.

Sometimes three sentences have more emphasis than one elaborate one. It took me five or more rewrites to get this sentence to sound right. Now, you might ask, is all this bother worthwhile?

If you are a writer, you would never ask such a question. When he was asked what problem caused him to revise the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times, Hemingway said simply, "Getting the words right." He knew that fussing with words is what writing is all about.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Memory in the Classroom

In this age when artificial memory has become so important, it is common to find students bringing their laptops to class to take notes.  In fact, when they are told not to do so, as Dan Rockmore did, it tends to make news. Of course, he wrote about it, and the responses to his piece on Andrew Sullivan's bog the Dish today caught my attention.

A few years ago, in one of my senior literature classes, most of the students had their laptops and seem to make good use of them. But I had mixed feelings about this intrusive technology.  A few were apparently sending messages to friends or surfing the Net or doing something other than listening.

And listening well is often a problem, not only in school. That prompts some respondents to Rockmore's piece to sing the praises of old-fashioned memory.

One of these says his or her literature professor forbade even note taking. "He wanted us to use our memories and so we had to become good listeners."  As a result, forty years later, he can still recite passages from Chaucer, Milton and other poets to impress his friends.

Yet the purpose of memory work, often neglected in today's schools, is not to impress others but to allow something like poetry to remain part of us, its cadence and imagery stored of the vast collective bank we draw upon as we move on. This is especially valuable for those who write.

I can remember my Latin and Shakespeare passages from many years ago, and being an English professor and writer, I am grateful that they have stuck in my brain. I am grateful for the Jesuits who insisted on these unpopular assignments. But they did not forbid note-taking.

That seems to be an extreme reaction to the conflict between memorizing and note-taking that goes back many centuries.  In the larger oral culture of the medieval university, where written texts were scarce, lectures were delivered rapidly so that the students could take them in "but the hand could not," according to one of Sullivan's respondents.

As my work on Matteo Ricci (d. 1610), the Jesuit who amazed the Chinese with his memory skills, indicates, education in earlier times and in cultures other than that of the West has long relied on memorizing vast amounts of material. This is a skill we have lost.

Ricci could recall long passages of material he had learned as a young man in Rome and was able to translate these into Chinese, which he mastered because of his training in the art of memory.

Shakepeare and other writers of his era, while relying on source books for their plays, could easily recall lines and passages from Ovid or Virgil that they had been required to know by heart.  Poetry is essentially an oral medium, even now, and the sound of language is something writers of prose often forget about when they revise their work.

Knowing things "by heart" has a lot to recommend it, even at the time when artificial memory dominates most of our communications media. Don't  both kinds of memory have a place in the classroom?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

'Open Wider'

As I prepare to teach a six-week writing workshop, I decided to repeat a few comments from an earlier post, "In praise of long sentences."

Pico Iyer, among many other prose stylists today, has written in favor of long sentences that are expansive: they open the reader, he says, to various levels of meaning, enabling him or her to go down into herself and into complex ideas that can't be squeezed into an "either/or."

I was glad to see Iyer sing the praises of the long sentence, something I regularly do with my students, even if they are puzzled or turned off by sentences (like this one) that seem to ramble, like speech, or even if they fear that a long sentence like this might be ungrammatical (it ain't) or worry, in the way every writer worries, that such writing is confusing, artificial or pretentious, which it may be if it isn't done carefully, with balanced clauses and phrases and perhaps a dash of humor. And if it isn't balanced by shorter sentences.

Am I showing off? Yes, for good reason.

It's not that I want students of writing to imitate the sometimes unreadable sentences of Henry James; it's just that I want them to have options.

So much depends on a writer's purpose. A descriptive sentence, if it opens a travel article, might be suitable for a long, cumulative sentence (which begins with the main idea, then accumulates modifiers). It would catch the reader's attention. Or it might suggest simultaneous action in a story in a way that a group of shorter sentences could not.

No one would recommend using a lot of really long sentences, just as no one would use James Joyce's Ulysses as a model of prose style.

There are times that a writer might prefer a trailing, expansive sentence that tells the reader, "open wider, please," like a dentist, "so I can more fully explore this thought with you."  But we have to be careful not to overdo such long, trailing sentences and to balance them with simpler ones to allow readers to catch their breath.

Writers at all levels learn a vast amount from reading carefully and paying attention to how skillful writers shape their sentences.

P.S. Here I want to put in a word for my wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, who has her own blog:  You might like to check out her style and see how it differs from mine. She has written a number of books for children, available on Amazon Kindle.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Still Learning (after all these years)

After more years of teaching and writing than I care to admit, I am still learning new techniques.  No surprise: Those who stand still, atrophy.

Having turned to fiction writing in the last two years after a lifetime of doing mainly non-fiction, I see over and over the importance of bringing a page to life by revising it with descriptive details.  I look at what I have written and see what's missing, and what's missing are the specific details that, along with dialogue, make a scene come alive.

Consider a few details from a short (non-fiction) piece in The New Yorker (June 2) by Emma Allen. It's a profile of the actor Hamish Linklater that I would not have read except that its descriptive detail--original and concise-- caught my eye.

For example: "Linklater--who is thirty-seven, lanky, toothy, with tousled curls--selected a seat next to his mother (white hair, polka-dotted socks), and slid into a slouch, arms crossed, black boots stuck straight out in front of him."

In one sentence, Allen has given me a snapshot of this man on a particular day. She does not waste words in long, fancy descriptive paragraphs: just a few deft touches are all we need.  The tone of this sentence is fresh, smart, and original.

I like writers who stick interesting details between dashes or parentheses (as long as the interruption of the main sentence is not too long).

Later in the article we read: "A student with gelled hair and ripped jeans raised his hand."  A fair amount of description is built into that neat little sentence. Quite often, less is more.

Someone said long ago, the truth is buried in the details. Writing without vivid description is dull, and description without sharp details is weak.

The challenge for me as a writer is to keep refining my sentences until they have been stripped of anything trite and have enough sparkle to make the reader want more.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Sentences to Die For

This post has nothing to do with capital punishment (death sentences!) but with those gems of prose style that I collect and savor, often wishing I had written them.

I do so in part because reading good prose--the kind that is carefully, creatively constructed--is what keeps me fresh as a writer.

And I am a connoisseur of sentences because, again this summer, I will be teaching a writing workshop (at the Winter Park Public Library from June 26-July 31).  I want my students to see how many sentence patterns there are, many worthy of imitation, and what options they have as writers. Of course, I will stress the importance of one overriding fact: the key to good writing is wide, careful reading in which we pay attention to the style of sentences, whether the author is writing fiction or non-fiction.

A number of good writers have emphasized the sentence as the key area of writing (and revision), the unit to focus on. Kathryn Schulz in a recent web post singles out Geoff Dyer, an English writer, for his mastery of non-fiction sentences that catch her eye and ear. She finds that Dyer (author of The Color of Memory) reaches new heights in extending the possibilities of the individual sentence.

For example, on a saxophone solo by John Coltrane Dyer writes, "It's pretty and then dangerous as he reaches so high the sky blues into the darkness of space before reentering, everything burning up around him."

Like Coltrane's music, Dyer reaches, as he does with the daring use of "blues": it serves, as Schulz points out, as verb, noun and adjective at the same time, making it seem "like the solo is still rising and what's falling is the sky."

This is poetic prose, highly calculated to dazzle. And it can be found in many places.  I don't know if I would be able to tolerate too many sentences like the one by Dyer; but one is all I need.

I often find in the New Yorker examples of less fancy but clever sentences that exemplify the left-handed (or periodic) pattern that is worth emulating, in which the modifiers pile up ahead of the main clause, as in this opening sentence by Anthony Lane, reviewing a current movie:

"Wrinkled and crinkled, huge in Japan, heroically reluctant to give up, and forever touring the world on a mission to make us scream, Godzilla is the Mick Jagger of giant amphibians."

I love this sentence not just because of the witty Jagger-Godzilla analogy, which I would never have thought of, but because the main clause--about Godzilla-- comes as a delightful surprise after the calculated opening.  Lane has the ability to make reviewing a Hollywood film into something of a work of art--delightful to readers with no interest in such movies.

I will, no doubt, as the summer progresses, share more sentences and commentary about the importance of the well-crafted sentence as the essence of good writing.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Science, faith and oversimplifying

Many thinking people have various objections to religious belief, many coming from the head rather than the heart. One of these is that, while we long for a comprehensive view of the world, faith oversimplifies the complexities of reality and conflicts with what reason tells us.

Damon Linker made this point last month on the web. He goes on:  "The tendency to oversimplification is a perennial temptation for all forms of human thinking, but it's especially acute in matters of religion. . . .There is a whole, and it can be grasped. But it is a complex whole.  A pluralistic whole."

My recent research on Jesuit scientists in history came to mind as I read that statement. I was reminded of my own education by men of faith who were also scholars; they did not see any necessary conflict between science and the life of the mind, on the one hand, and religious belief on the other. They gave us who were their students a sense that every difficult question should be looked at in the broadest possible context.

A principal example of this approach is the Jesuit scientist Teilhard de Chardin, a distinguished geologist who was also a mystic and philosopher, a passionate intellectual who died in 1955 (under Vatican censure because of his then-radical views of evolution that are now accepted). He did not oversimplify but sought to make connections that he perceived in the natural world he studied.

Teilhard's writing is difficult--full of general assertions that are often unclear--and I have been wrestling with understanding him for some years. Lately, I have returned to him, reading two books that help clarify the essential points where his stance as a scientist and his Christian faith come together in a holistic vision.

Like many Jesuits, Teilhard remains on the edge--or at the point of intersection between the world and God. He went further than most with a comprehensive view of life that is seen from the evolutionary as well as the spiritual perspective.

He came to see evolution as more than physical: it is also, he insists, psychological and spiritual--and sacred. Because of the Incarnation, he sees the presence of God in all things, even in the unfolding over time of the evolutionary process through what he calls the energy of love.

Dante speaks of love as the divine energy that moves the planets--a mystical and poetic medieval idea that Teilhard, with his deep understanding of the physical world, advances in daring ways.  Ilia Delio has written several books on the relation between science and religion from the perspective of Teilhard, and her explanation of what love means in his writing is the first one that makes sense to me.

In stating that the "physical structure of the universe is love," that love is the building power even in molecules, Teilhard seems to mean love is that which unites. The inherent tendency to unite--even at the molecular level, says Delio--means that "to be" means "to be united."  Being is relational and exists for the sake of giving. "I do not exist," she writes, "in order that I may possess; I exist in order that I may give of myself."  (emphasis added)
(Teilhard has invented a whole new metaphysics, it seems.)

Cosmic life is essentially communal, and the energy of love is not a romantic cliché but a principle (for Teilhard) that involves giving and sharing; being comes from union, and "union is always toward more being."
If this makes sense, as it is starting to for me, we can see what Delio, along with Ursula King and others, mean when they say that Teilhard's vision is a way out of materialism; reality is not only that which can be known empirically.

Rationalists would say that love is secondary to knowledge; mystics like Teilhard would put love first: they add a whole new dimension to the understanding of reality by insisting that love is the goal and purpose of all knowledge, that is, the love-energy that drives the evolutionary process toward an fulfillment in the cosmic Christ.  (It seems that Dante in 1321 was on to something!)

And you thought, maybe, that science and religion were inevitably opposed?

There is in Teilhard's vision, however difficult it may be to articulate, an underlying optimism, rooted in faith and in the conviction that all things in their relatedness, their love, are leading human nature through evolution to a final fulfillment at the end of time that is positive. How could love not be positive, hopeful, and optimistic?

If you want to learn more about Teilhard, see Ursula King's biography Spirit of Fire (I found it moving) and Delio's The Unbearable Wholenss of Being, a challenging read that might serve as an introduction to Teilhard's own books, The Phenomenon of Man and The Divine Milieu.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The power of memory

Yesterday I gave a lecture on the amazing Jesuit who brought Western science to China in the early 17th century, Matteo Ricci.  One of the most dazzling of his achievements was his prodigious memory. He found the Chinese language perfectly adapted to his system, called a memory palace, of associating letters or words with images.

As a result, he could memorize an entire Chinese text and recite it to the Mandarin scholars in Beijing, then recite the whole thing backwards, to everyone's amazement. This was part of his being accepted in an alien culture hostile to foreigners. Jonathan Spence, in "The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci," explains the complex process by which he did so.

In today's New York Times, I happened to see an article by Benedict Carey about an international Extreme Memory Tournament in which contestants do much the same thing as Ricci and his Jesuit colleagues did in the Renaissance.  Ricci's name is (surprisingly) not mentioned, even though the term "memory palace," popularized by Spence's book, should have made Ricci  familiar enough to warrant a mention.

At any event, as I told my audience yesterday, in earlier, oral cultures, with fewer texts available, the memory skills of people were stretched in ways that we can barely imagine.  Ricci, thirty years after finishing his education in classics in Italy, could recall entire passages of poetry or prose from his youth and quote them verbatim, before translating them into Chinese, in the many books he wrote during his 27 years in the Middle Kingdom, where he is still honored as a cultural ambassador.

In today's world of memory athletes, neuroscientists are interested in testing how contestants from Germany, a leader in such work, and other countries can associate words or numbers already memorized with places, such as with scenes from a movie. Or the rooms in a house or palace.

It takes them many, many hours of concentrated effort to achieve what Ricci and his contemporaries 400 years ago were able to do with seemingly effortless ease.  Perhaps one day we will understand how they did so as we learn more and more about the brain and the human memory.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Praying in Public

The recent Supreme Court case involving the town of Greece, NY and the "issue" of prayer in public meetings has prompted much attention, none of it as valuable, for my money, than the blog post of Morgan Guyton, "Would Jesus Pray at a City Council Meeting?"

Guyton brings me back to my old topic of contemplative prayer and the need to create a monastery within where we rest in God. Silence and solitude are required. I have published several articles on such themes as well as numerous posts.

So I was pleased to see Mr. Guyton refer to prayer as creating a monastery "where we can sit and enjoy the presence of God." He thinks of praying as going to one's inner room, as Jesus did, and praying to the Father in secret. The result is an intimacy that is clearly incompatible with public meetings.

  How can we have an intimate conversation with God if prayer becomes "a public performance and an inner farce," as implied in the arguments presented to the court?

  I don't think Guyton wishes to rule out the validity of community prayer or the church as a praying community, but his emphasis on the private, personal nature of prayer as an intimate connection with the divine is important.

"No inner monastery is created by a prayer that has been clipped onto the beginning of a secular meeting," Guyton writes. And I say 'Amen.'

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Reading is Creative

We all know that writing is a creative act, but many of us overlook the fact that reading, which is such an inseparable part of writing, also involves the reader's imagination in ways that literary theorists and neurobiologists have been studying for some time.

I was reminded of the work of Norman Holland of the University of Florida and others when I encountered a blog by Nicholas Carr a few months back. He writes about how narrative literature "takes hold of the brain in curious and powerful ways."

It seems that, as we read a story, our own experiences and knowledge join with the narrative to create something like a dream of the work we read, and we inhabit that dream as if it were an actual place, Carr says.

You might be thinking, "Of course, I know that reading, like immersion in a film, is emotionally engaging and absorbing, that we lose ourselves."  But did you know that experiencing strong feelings from a fictional work can cause alterations in brain functions?  I don't know how the reactions a reader has can ever be measured in a laboratory, but the mounting evidence from various researchers about the social and psychological implications of reading is impressive.

Quoting Keith Oatley as well as Holland, Carr says that "a book is rewritten in the mind of every reader, and the book rewrites the reader's mind in a unique way, too."  An astounding statement.

Does reading literature make us more attentive to the real-life feelings of others around us? Do we become more empathetic?  Such are some of the imponderables as we consider what happens when the reader withdraws from his or her own world into a fictive world, which can be a way to connect more deeply into the inner lives of ourselves and "others"--even if these others are imagined characters.

If reading fiction can alter the reader's personality in various ways, imagine what happens cognitively to the writer, who both creates alternate worlds and, in revising his work, becomes the first reader of this work--and is changed in ways yet to be determined.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Joy of Anxiety (?)

There is little pleasure and no joy in living in that heightened state of fearful apprehension known as anxiety. Yet we know that the imagination, spurred by fears of what might happens, can thrive on anxiety, which T. S. Eliot called the handmaiden of creativity.

This is the basis for an odd little essay by Katie Roiphe, "The Joy of Stress," which tends to equate stress with anxiety and which shows little inside understanding of the subject. No surprise: the author, with a Ph.D. in English, has a reputation as noted feminist and like many younger academics today, seems to have avoided conventional literary scholarship for cultural studies and journalism.

As such she can pontificate about anxiety as if she knows something about it.  Roiphe seems to associate anxiety with the high generated by an extra shot of caffeine.  Her suggestions:  calmness is not as attractive (exciting) as anxiety, which gives a crisp focus to our days. The result is a kind of perversely pleasurable sensation. In fact, "if you are safe and secure, you are bored. If you feel comfortable, you lack desire."

She intends to raise provocative questions but ends up making empty statements, even for a journalist tackling a topic in the social sciences that it too much for her.  For example, "some. . .widespread anxiety may be clinical. But much of it is surely a cast of mind, an atmosphere, a style."

Oh? It's something we can adopt or drop at will?  And if we want to live on the edge and be creative, we might consider maintaining the vitality of anxiety?

Perhaps there are times when people thrive on being anxious and enjoy the rush, but, for me, there is little joy in living on a high wire.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The art of doing nothing

I find my cat amusing as well as refreshing company because her life of utter simplicity seems based on doing absolutely nothing that can be construed as useful or productive.  And my life has always been built around getting tasks done. So I look at her in amazement.

I feel guilty doing nothing, and most people today seem insanely busy, endlessly finding things to do to occupy spare minutes, as if in a mad race with time and death.

But a recent book by Andrew Smart (Autopilot: the Art and Science of Doing Nothing) argues that we should do less, not more: idleness is not only good but essential for the brain. It is one of the most important activities in life. Talk about counterintuitive. As an American, I was influenced by the Protestant work ethic, which says, a busy  person is a happy person and idleness is the devil's workshop.

(I found a review with such extensive excerpts from the book on Shane Parrish's blog Farnam Street that I'm not sure I need to read the book itself. I am, after all, too busy with other things.)

Excessive busyness, Smart says, is bad for the brain and has serious health consequences. It "destroys creativity, self-knowledge, emotional well-being, your ability to be social--and it can damage your cardiovascular health. . . Through idleness great ideas buried in your unconsciousness have the chance to enter your awareness."

So daydreaming is necessary for creativity. Letting the mind rove freely and breathe is basic to anyone who wants to write.

Allowing ourselves to be idle for a day each week at least is basic to the Sabbath tradition. What about an hour or two each day? Can we do that without crippling guilt?

Smart even argues that boredom is a key to self-knowledge. Yet boredom is not the same as idleness.  I have often reflected on the ambivalence of boredom. People with too much time on their hands tend to be restless and unhappy, and the fear of running out of things to do--a common problem for kids during the long summer break--can be anxiety-producing. Is that what boredom is?

Many say that boredom is a manifestation of depression. Kathleen Norris' book on Acedia (often associated with medieval monks) goes in this direction. Does idleness lead people in a productive society like ours to boredom?  Is being bored the price we pay for happy moments of having achieved something?

The questions about the relation between idleness and boredom are intriguing and important. So, apparently, is our need to let our brains rest, not just in sleep, but in creative daydreaming.

So imitating your cat for a while each day might well be productive--but in a different sense from the one valued by the activity-driven culture. It seems that Mr. Smart is on to something important.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Entering the Blogosphere

This is a notice from a proud husband about his wife's latest literary achievement:  Having published ten books for children and ten other books for adults on Amazon's Kindle, Lynn Schiffhorst today launched herself into the blogosphere with her own blog:

Her blog, the work of someone generally reluctant to embrace the new technology, is actually called "Starshine and Cat Tails."  She explains why in her initial post.

Lynn, whose poetry has been published in a 1989 book by the University of Florida Press, has been writing fiction for children for many years. Thanks to Kindle, her books of poems, Spoons on the Moon and The Green Road to the Stars, introduced readers to "quiet rhymes for quiet times" (ideal bedtime reading for kids). Since then, she has done several novels for older children (age 9-12) set in Denmark and a group of "feline detective novels" set in Manhattan, ideal for adults who are cat lovers.

There are also stories about a whimsical ghost named Giggle and several collections with holiday themes. The list can be seen on Amazon.

I am happy to have been part of this literary launch and equally happy to recommend her work to the wider world.