Monday, December 18, 2017

Peace on earth?

As I send Christmas greetings to friends and family, with the usual best wishes for a happy new year, I find this annual tradition an empty, almost pointless ritual. "Peace on earth, good will to men": really?

Anyone aware of what's going on in the world has to be dismayed. We live in a dark time.  The first year of Trumpism is leading to a second, with a tax cut, mainly for the rich, that will add $1 trillion to the U.S. deficit and fail to deal with pressing issues (infrastructure needs, health care, job creation). At the same time, every progressive action on social justice and the environment by the Obama administration is being undone or subverted.

The federal government, under-funded, is not really functioning and so goes the world, wondering how to handle the decline in American leadership.  The result of Trumpism in Europe is clear from the rise of nationalism and right-wing politicians and the immigrant crisis, which continues without enlightened moral leadership.

What do we have to look forward to? More instability, Islamic turmoil, economic uncertainty, sexual harassment scandals, and White House lies and corruption.

So I hope those who see my good wishes for peace in the new year know that it applies locally, to the individual and his or her family, since there is little peace to be found in the wider world.  We think of those people not in the news who are working to help the poor and make goodness happen. Or we turn inward, as we must, to our religious traditions and beliefs, to sustain us in this dark time.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The dangers of social media

Every new technology brings, along with its benefits, side-effects, dangers, or problems, some often not immediately recognized.

In a recent piece in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan singles out studies that show that eighth graders who use social media extensively can increase their risk of depression.   "Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide," he writes.

Smartphones in particular have increased isolation and anxiety in an entire generation while also impairing cognitive functioning.  The article doesn't mention the risk to ADHD youngsters, but I am told by an expert that over-reliance on such devices can be addictive.

A striking insight provided by Sullivan: even when people are avoiding the temptation to check their cell phones, the mere presence of these devices impacts their ability to listen and learn.

The problem of being distracted also concerns Richard Rohr, the Franciscan guru whose daily online meditations I read.  He is concerned about obstacles to being present to the moment and to others.  He says that every religion values the sanctity of the now since reality (God) is to be encountered only in the present.

Today, says Rohr, we have more obstacles to authentic presence than at any time in history.  We carry them in our pockets, "vibrating and notifying us about everything and nothing. . . .Most of our digital and personal conversation is about nothing.  Nothing that matters, nothing that lasts, nothing that's real."  It's possible to waste years in our lives doing such nothings.

I would conclude that we must, as with everything else we invent, use the new media in moderation.  Otherwise we risk missing out on what matters in our own lives.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Making Friends with Death

November in Florida is deceptive: trees show little or no color, and although some leaves fall, most trees (oaks) shed their dead leaves in January but the branches are quickly replenished with new buds, a sign that death and life are inseparable.

But wherever we are, November for many Christians is the month of All Souls, of remembering those who have died, especially in the past year. So my thoughts are reflective, but not morbid, as I try to sort out death as a rebirth.

Stars are constantly dying and being reborn, astronomers tell us, as are cells. In nature the cycle of life and death is played out on every level.  Plants and animals seem to accept this, along with the change of seasons.  As Shakespeare writes, "all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity."  His character, Hamlet, has a hard time accepting this ultimate aspect of nature, as many of us do.

As Richard Rohr says, "Nature fights for life but does not resist dying. Only one species resists this natural process: humans."  Why is this?

The most obvious response is that animals don't know they will die; they live in the constant present, neither looking back nor thinking ahead.  They cannot imagine losing what we have: an ego--and a store of memories and experiences that will vanish when we leave this earth.

Death for us remains a mystery: we wonder what exactly happens and how and when it will occur. No matter how many deaths I witness vicariously in books and movies, no matter how many people I know pass away, my own extinction seems as unique as my self and is the ultimate source of fear in my life. I don't know what kernel of myself will live on--some essence of me will live on, I know--but the true self or soul or whatever we call our spiritual center is a mystery.

I want to believe, with the theologian John S. Dunne, that some super-consciousness will remain as I enter the long sleep; but I can only hope that this might be so. I must face the unknown, ending "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" (Hamlet again) for an eternal something in which, I trust, my identity will survive, even without my body.

How to know all this intellectually and be okay with it emotionally is a great challenge.  Every day we hear of death and easily assume it is happening to others; we forget that death is all around us, not merely waiting at the end of the road, but as a presence within us, an inherent part of life; it coexists in the nature we share with the universe, as we see in the trees of autumn, dying now to be reborn again.

Somehow I have to come to accept all this and be comfortable with it. I have to make death a friend and not my ultimate enemy.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Fake news and false "facts"

I recently received an email, forwarded by a neighbor, about Japan. The opening statements seemed to be true, but as the list of "interesting facts," as they were called, went on, I saw some surprising statements about Islam in Japan--things like Japan does not give permanent residency to Muslims, the Koran cannot be imported, etc.

Suspicious, I checked at once via Google and found two fact-based websites that were responding to the viral falsehoods about Japan and Islam being spread on the Internet and swallowed by those who like conspiracy theories, false news, and anything that suggests that immigration by anyone with an Arabic or Muslim background should be stopped here in the U.S., as (supposedly) in Japan. 

It turns out that the Greater Japan Islamic League was founded in 1930; today there are about 100,000 Muslims in that country who attend about 30-40 mosques, where one assumes the Koran is used. The University of Tokyo has a Department of Islamic Studies; experts there have denied the list of "facts" in the viral email.

So the email's "interesting facts" were not factual but propaganda of the worst kind since they deceive and distort truth with a malicious intent.  Without truth and trust, how can a society function?  This is the dilemma we face in the age of Trump, where fake news and lies proliferate.

I was glad to see in yesterday's New York Times an article about schools in Italy taking the lead in teaching children to recognize fake news.  The leader of this movement, Laura Boldrini, is quoted: "Fake news drips drops of poison into our daily web diet and we end up infected without even realizing it."  She wants kids in schools to be able to defend themselves from lies.

Bravo for Italy!  Even Pope Francis is dedicating World Communications Day to fake news.  Italy is not alone is try to grapple with the lies that sow confusion in the public sphere and undermine the credibility of powerful institutions, such as the US Government.

The battle against digital deceit has to begin by reminding everyone not to share unverified news; to ask for sources and evidence for statements that seem to be more opinion than fact; and to remember that the internet and social networks can be easily manipulated.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Guns in America: Is there hope?

In the wake of the horrific shooting recently in Las Vegas, in which a lone gunman was able to bring more than 20 weapons into his hotel room, the media have been full of desperate pleas to curb gun violence since those in Washington do nothing but lament.

America seems to be alone in the world in its gun culture; even Australia, which also has a frontier history of independent citizens, was able in time to pass laws that allowed the government to buy automatic and semi-automatic weapons and destroy them, followed by strict gun control laws. The result? a sharp drop in gun-related deaths. Obviously.

Why is America different?  Is our culture not amenable to change?  Is the NRA gun lobby so powerful that strong that lawmakers are afraid to make the changes that common sense demands?  Many experts say that the problem is not the Second Amendment ("the right to bear arms") but the gun lobby.  Yet consider how this country moved from a society in which smoking was widespread in the workplace and elsewhere to the present: in a matter of a few decades, smokers are now in the minority, shunned for polluting the atmosphere.  Somehow, the powerful tobacco lobby was forced by the courts to concede concessions to issues of health.

If smokers claimed freedom of expression as their legal right, they were defeated by the fear of cancer. Yet the gun owners who claim that their freedom under the Constitution is at risk with more control of handguns fail to admit what really is at issue: fear.

The fear of losing one's land, independence and freedom to the federal government is a very powerful culture force inbred in millions of white, male Americans, especially in rural and Western states. This has been exacerbated by the changes in society brought by the civil rights, gay rights, women's rights, and other movements since the 1960s.

Men are usually reluctant to admit how deep-seated their fear of the loss of the "security" that guns provide them is, and this fear seems stronger than any rational argument about the second amendment and the senseless killings made possible by the sale of weapons.  Politicians lack the courage to stand up to this powerful force, embodied in the National Rifle Association, which supports the lucrative gun manufacturing business.

So I am not sanguine about changing cultural attitudes toward guns, although I would like to think that the anti-smoking campaign offers an analogous solution.  Fear in this case is deep-seated, and apparently, sadly, tragically, neither more massacres nor rational arguments for gun control will change the minds of gun supporters.  Ours remains a violent society.

I hope I am wrong. I hope and pray that a commission of our former Presidents Clinton, Obama, and Bush, along with influential people like Michael Bloomberg, might put together the money and muscle for a long campaign that would limit the sale of assault weapons.  But it will be a long campaign. And the political establishment would fight it bitterly, fearful of losing their power.

How does trust gain power over fear?

Friday, September 29, 2017

Loneliness in the Workplace

As one of the many minor victims of Hurricane Irma as she blew through Florida recently, depriving us of power for several days, I found myself relying on silence, relishing the absence of the media, but missing the Internet. Gradually, I became restless and anxious (When will this be over?). Perhaps the main feeling was one of isolation. No one could telephone us for more than a week.  I again realized how much we humans are social creatures who need communication.

So recently when Linkedin sent me a discussion of a topic raised by the Harvard Business Review about the serious problem of loneliness at work, I immediately identified. Even without the benefit of a power outage, I know that a writer, and anyone who spends much of the day looking at a computer screen, has a life of isolation.  Often solitude is essential for the creative spirit, for contemplation. So we need some solitude, some private time and space.

But being alone can also lead to the sad feelings of loneliness, of being dis-connected from others.  And many people I know either teach online or work online or, like the many employees I encounter in stores and restaurants, have no opportunity to have a real conversation.  I think of mail carriers, lawn cutters, and cleaners as well as the many widowed and elderly people who live alone, isolated from a community or family. Some say they barely speak ten words a day to another person.

The Linkedin discussion brought up some interesting reasons for our "epidemic," as the original HBR article called it.  Matthew Giarmo, a psychologist, writes that we value the number of connections we make with people on social media and elsewhere rather than the quality of these connections. They are often not real relationships.

In the workplace, he says, we are told that the less you speak, the less you risk "inappropriate self-disclosure" and "boundary issues" designed by the law to protect our privacy. In addition, the work itself is often scripted and designed by software and is more mechanized than it used to be. As a result, we are often disengaged from our work and our fellow workers. 

Another writer, an extrovert, tired of eating lunch alone, feels isolated because his job in IT involves forced relationships or the kind of artificial connections made by Facebook.  Another person writes that the demand for productivity and efficiency leaves little room for social interaction or thoughtful interchange with others. Corporate America fails to recognize that innovation is the result of the exchange of ideas, yet many companies have employees who feel unheard, lonely, and undervalued.

Add to this the fact that few people have more than one close confidante, one real friend who has the time to listen to them.  And the over-reliance on electronic devices, which, however useful, are no substitute for person-to-person exchanges.

No wonder we lavish money on pets: They seem to listen patiently and are not into productivity. No wonder we have problems with drugs and alcohol. No wonder relationships and marriages are often affected by the stress of employees, who may be productive but are unhappy and often unable, I suspect, to articulate why they are unhappy, the way those responding to this article have done.

I am glad that my first experience with Linkedin has been so revealing. I hope the online conversation leads to some solutions in the workplace.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Compulsive Higher Education

In the fine TV movie of "A Dance to the Music of Time," set in the 1930s, an Oxford don asks a new student, "Are you happy?"

He replies that he is not, that too many students are there to drink and have fun. Some things never change.  I can't imagine professors today asking such a question of a college freshman, in part because they already know, in most cases, what the answer is. They can tell by looking at their bored, passive faces or reading their lifeless essays.

They know what I observed for years dealing with thousands of new students at a large state university: that most of the freshman are there because it is expected--by their parents, their past teachers, their future employers, and their peers.  Not going to college (a four-year, preferably residential school) is not cool. It is supposed to be the dream world at the end of twelve years of compulsive education.

Frank Bruni in a recent NYTimes column  (9-3-17) talks about the loneliness of many new students at universities and their tendency to drink in order to forget.  He says what many of us know: that college is over-sold to students. From elementary school on, it seems, studying hard and getting good grades will mean acceptance at a good university, which will please the family and mean a chance at a good job--along with bragging rights by all involved.  And dropping out to learn about life, to see the world, to learn a trade is looked down upon.

This results in compulsive higher education. How often I have looked at the faces of freshmen who have come with high expectations having little to do with studying. In fact, they don't read much, or enjoy the life of the mind, probably because it's unfamiliar to them.

To return to Bruni's column: he says college in America isn't merely oversold to teenagers as a rite of passage. "It's a gaudily painted promise. The time of their lives!  The disparity between myth and reality stuns many of them, and various facets of media today--from social media to a secondary school narrative that frames admission to college as the end of all worry--worsen the impact."

No wonder there is too much drinking, some drugs, too many parties, reckless behavior at fraternity or sorority houses and too much depression.

A four-year college education is not for everyone, nor is it a fundamental human right. It is for those who have a career goal that requires the advanced study that our fine universities and colleges provide.

I am glad to see more and more young people taking a gap year to learn a bit about life outside the classroom. I would like to see more high school counselors promote technical programs that don't require a four-year degree--and more parents encouraging their kids to gain some life experience rather than landing, alone, in a college lecture hall with 450 other students, most of them prepared since early childhood for the great "college experience," which sometimes isn't so great.

Advice to parents: check out the drop-out rate at the colleges your kids plan to attend and explore some of the reasons for these drop outs.  Such data is not widely advertised.

Friday, September 1, 2017

How real is the past?

I visited my 96-year-old friend Mary last week. Although her bones are wobbly, she has lost none of her faculties. Her long-term memory is especially alive with stories of World War II and life on Long Island 60 years ago, and she comes alive in telling these stories.  She finds joy in "re-living the past" without being trapped by guilt or needing to re-hash old grievances.

When she said, "the past is not over and done with," I thought of William Faulkner's famous statement: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
This seems to mean that the present is unreal, that "right now" is always becoming the past and so does not exist.

I will come back to that. After seeing Mary, I happened to find a cache of old family pictures and high school memorabilia; and before finding a new home for them, found myself being pulled back more than 50 years, thinking of friends as they were then and convincing myself, for a time, that they were as alive to me--and as real--as the images of long-gone actors on the screen, which deceive us into thinking they are still alive.

It almost like the delusion that doomed the tragic protagonist in The Great Gatsby, who was convinced he could repeat the past, that somehow he could recapture Daisy as she once was, as if the intervening years had not occurred, as if he could extend his remembered past happiness into the present.  Poor Gatsby.

Someone said that the past is always a work in progress. I think of this often when I read biographies that re-visit familiar figures from the past and bring them "to life."  What is happening, of course, is that the reader (like the historian) is re-interpreting through the imagination a new version of what the past might have been.  Augustine, back in the 4th century, saw in his reflections on time in the Confessions, that memory and imagination are related, almost interchangeable.

All our experiences are filtered through remembered events as they become part of our past.  In saying this, I am neglecting my spiritual conviction, often called mindfulness, that tells us that only the present moment is real. God, Ultimate Reality, is revealed to Moses as "I AM." 

The contemplative mind, whether following Christian or Buddhist practice, pushes aside the past, which is as unreal as the future; in this way only the present moment, fleeting as it is, can give us access to the kind of timeless present found in meditation--and evoked by T. S. Eliot in his later poetry.

Many poets have sought those timeless moments "in and out of time" that hint at eternity, just as mystics try to find words for the inexpressible moments of union with the divine.  Great poets are mystics in the sense that, for them, past events, recalled by the memory and enhanced by imagination, live on in the mind and in their art, which is impervious to time.

So I think that it is to great writers, especially poets, that we must turn for a proper response to Faulkner's idea of the past, which I think of as a work in progress; it often tries to snare us into thinking that it's real.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Trumpism: Some benefits

Like many people disgusted by the events of the past ten days, when Trump shocked the world by failing to exert basic moral leadership following the neo-Nazi march in Virginia, I have been turning away from the news for relief.

Too much news, like too much reality, can be overwhelming.  Yet the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, long known for sarcastic put-downs, has shown in her column today why the era of Donald Trump may have ushered in a new golden age of journalism.

Dowd descended from the pedestal she has carefully constructed over the years out of wit and gossip and scorn and produced a piece of wisdom: she sees good coming out of evil (and the Trump administration, with its disregard for the common good in health, the environment, civil rights, etc., has been vicious and vile).  I quote her column:

"There will be a lot of pain while this president is in office and the clock will turn back on many things. But we will come out stronger, once this last shriek of white supremacy and grievance and fear of the future is out of the system. Every day, President Trump teaches us what values we cherish--and they're the opposite of his."

If Dowd is right, as I would hope she is, we are beginning to have a much-needed discussion of racism and diversity in America, just as we are already seeing a rise in a resistance movement to the worst instincts of the Trump administration.  We are seeing politicians and others on both sides distance themselves from his bigotry, lies, and ignorance.

The issue goes beyond race but involves the lesson of the civil rights movement: that non-violence in the long run is more effective than violent protests. It attracts more people and will force the extreme alt-right white nationalists (for whom Trump is an icon) into the shadows.

This will take time; it will require patience, courage, and the wisdom Maureen Dowd shows in taking the long view of the current madness.

It is encouraging to realize that something good will eventually come out of the current disaster.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Escaping into Films

My wife and I tend to watch a lot of movies--too many, in fact. Perhaps we are tired at the end of the day or, lately, so weary of the horror that is the Trump presidency that we eagerly escape into the alternate reality of film since TV offers so little. Or blame Netflix, which makes it all possible.

So instead of venting my feelings about the latest racist outrage in Virginia, and the response, I savor memories of three striking films we saw this week, none of them mainstream Hollywood offerings.

The most memorable is a 2009 Italian movie with a perplexing title: THE MAN WHO WILL COME, directed and written by Giorgio Diritti. If I had known that his story was based on the massacre of 770 innocent villagers in central Italy in 1944 (the Marzabotto Massacre), I probably would not have ordered it, but the violence is offset and beautifully counterbalanced by the way the film unfolds: quietly, through the eyes of a beautiful little girl who seems fearless as she watches Nazis kill her family members and neighbors. She retains a hope that the baby brother being born will save her from the trauma of having lost an earlier brother, which caused her to become mute.  As a result, the film has a silence enhanced by a lack of soundtrack and by a remarkably understated style as one scene of village life unfolds after another.  The sense we are given is that life is a balance of good and evil, of violence and compassion; above all, of redemptive love, which keeps little Martina going and turns her into a little mother-figure caring for her infant brother. The style of the director, who gives us impressions of life in war-torn Italy, somehow minimizes the impact of the war and death and makes the dialogue almost unnecessary. 

THE PROMISE is a 2016 film of artistry and power about the Armenian genocide a hundred years ago, but the main focus is on the love triangle between an Armenian doctor, his lover, and the American reporter who also loves her. The cast in this long movie is strong, the impact unforgettable, as, once again, the theme of love and war is treated with artistry and originality.

Finally, another tale of wartime Europe but with an upbeat ending.  THE EXCEPTION concerns the exile of the aged German Kaiser (Christopher Plummer) in Holland in 1940, which is given a fanciful treatment and becomes secondary to the love story between a Jewish spy and the SS captain she loves and whom we come to like as a human being.

As someone said, the past is always a work in progress. And art of this type can give us an intelligent escape from present reality.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Names without limits

As new parents become more and more creative with naming their infants, some relying on familiar names while others inventing ones they like and still others borrowing famous ones, I wonder, should there be some guidelines on what is acceptable? If so, how do we reconcile freedom of choice with the specter of Big Brother?

What is to prevent a parent from naming his son Adolf Hitler Jones or Lee Harvey Oswald Smith?  Is it fair to the child to be saddled with such a name?  Or wacky names like Spaghetti, States Rights, and Kyrie (seen recently in the media)?

The French, always careful to preserve their heritage in language and culture, have long legislated such things, to the horror of many Americans. Apparently, the practice goes back to the French Revolution, when children where given political names (Rights of Man, etc.), leading Napoleon in 1803 to declare that French babies could only be named after the saints; this was later amended to included classical and historical names (Hercule, Diana, etc.). This remained in effect until 1966, when the laws were relaxed a bit.

But, as Lauren Collins reports in the current New Yorker, a government registrar in France today is required to accept any name (mon Dieu!) EXCEPT one that might not been in the child's best interest, in which case the naming is referring to a magistrate from the Department of Justice.   Recent rulings include such statements:  Fanciful, ridiculous names are likely to create difficulties and embarrassments for the child. So the government has suppressed such names as Happy, Nutella, and Prince-William, which must be replaced by names like Roger or Raymond.

Many here, in the land of individualism, where the "nanny state" is loathed, are likely to storm the equivalent of the Bastille and file suit, demanding their rights to use whatever name they conjure up from films, books, or their own imaginations for any new baby.

I do pity the child sometimes, who must, at age 21 or so, go through the legal process of changing Reality Game Johnson or Barefoot Soles to something more mainstream. But, if everyone had a Tom, Dick, or Jane kind of name, how bland the world would be.  So I'm all for freedom while still  admiring the standards maintained by the French, even if they seem like a relic of another age.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Terror, anxiety, and grace

I have saved an interview with actor Andrew Garfield from the magazine America (January 2017) by Brendan Busse because it deals with something that is part of my life and something I have written about: anxiety.

Garfield is one of the many performers I have read about (Barbra Streisand, among them) whose stage-fright has often prevented their going on stage.  The fear of being seen and watched and judged has affected me, not on the stage but in more ordinary circumstances I won't go into.

What's interesting is how Garfield, on the verge of suicide while preparing for a Shakespeare performance in London a few years ago, felt hopeless. "I feel like I'm going to die, " he said.  He had never before felt such terror or absolute dread at the idea of revealing himself.

People who hate to give public speeches can understand this common phobia.

To calm himself, he took at walk and encountered a street singer with a mediocre voice singing Don MacLean's "Vincent." Garfield remembers the imperfection of the performance:  "If that guy had thought he had nothing to offer and told himself he was not ready to perform in public, I would not have been given what I needed."

He needed a bit of outside inspiration, and it came from that song, which he considers a gift from God, just as his despair came as a moment of grace, a sign that he had to suffer before seeing that his depression was a kind of prayer, a cry for help.

Garfield then began to cry, feeling that God was telling him, "You think if you go on stage, you're going to die. But actually if you don't, you're doing to die."  And so he went on to this and other performances, always aware of the tension between the deep fear of being seen and the deep need of this.

As several self-help books tell us, feel the fear and carry on anyway.  Maybe your inner self will experience a moment of grace, as Garfield did,
when your inner self moves you from despair to participation in life.

A writer who has analyzed (in his book "Monkey Mind") his own acute anxiety is Daniel Smith, who reminds us of the universality of fear, an essential emotion essential for a full experience of life. Acute anxiety and terror are also common and can, he says, be dealt with despite their daily horrors and discomforts (by exercise, meditation, counseling, medication perhaps).

Before such anxiety leads to despair, he says, we must fight it. Keeping up the daily fight, I would add, is a holy struggle. It can be a form of prayer, a reaching out to the God outside us.  

Monday, July 10, 2017

The enigma of desire in a fine novel

I am always attracted to writers whose style, whose attention to sentences, inspires me to do better work or to return, revived, to an old draft of a story.

Such is the case with The Enigma Variations by Andre Aciman. I wasn't sure if I wanted to read a novel about a bisexual man or perhaps more accurately a man who at various stages of his life goes from a schoolboy crush to lust and jealousy with people of each sex--along with regret, fear, sadness, and worry and all the emotions that make sexuality so complicated.

But I am glad I stayed with it. I must confess to having been intrigued by the title, an allusion to Elgar's piece of music, and even more to the multiculturally rich background of the author: He was born in Alexandria,Egypt of Turkish-Jewish parents who spoke French at home and introduced their son to Greek, English and Italian, which he then perfected when the family moved to Rome.  Then as an adult, Aciman came to America, to Harvard to study comparative literature, which he now teaches in New York City.

It is no surprise to learn from this latest of his books that he is an expert on Proust: the intense, closely observed and analyzed states of feeling that become almost claustrophobic as we follow a man named Paul at various stages of his life.

The recurring theme of the five interlocking stories that comprise this novel is one of memory and desire, as our narrator takes us deeply into his mind and soul as he moves from a gay to a straight experience and back again, suggesting that these terms and categories are useless in describing, like Shakespeare's sonnets, all the emotions associated with lust and longing, with men and women,with time and regret, with joy and sadness.

Aciman, a master of subtly described arousal, shows us that all of us are various people at various points in our life.

In an elegant style that is almost hypnotic, Aciman has crafted a very original type of novel analyzing in agonizing detail what being in love is like, from various perspectives. It is also, my students will be happy to learn, full of those long sentences that I admire and urge upon them.

So, even if you at first find that the desire analyzed here turns you off, you will find the tone poetic--wistful and melancholy--and the style and the central character memorable.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

On "Silence"

I began this blog some years ago when I was writing and thinking a lot about silence--not as the absence of sound but as the presence of a spiritual reality that comes to those who practice contemplation.  I was, at the time, studying the work of Thomas Merton.

The silence in Martin Scorsese's film of that name, which I recently saw, is rather different, although the soundtrack is marked by quiet.  Rather it is the silence of God found in those who struggle with their faith amid terrible suffering.   As one of the Portuguese Jesuits says in this stunning film, set in 17th century Japan, "I would die for you if I knew you were there."

The interplay of faith, doubt and  temptation, rather than its characters, makes "Silence" distinctive. It could only be made by a director like Scorsese, whose Catholic faith underlies his work in subtle ways.  "Silence" is a three-hour, often bloody meditation on religious faith.

No wonder it received minimal attention at the box office and among many reviewers. I postponed seeing it until I could do so at home, via Netflix, because of its intensity and violence.  My first impression was to be struck by the beauty of the cinematography, which, with its light and dark contrasts, reminded me of Caravaggio, whose paintings are filled with Gospel stories illuminated by dark, sordid reality.

Here I found the converted villagers more moving and fervent than the actors portraying the Jesuit missionaries. These are peasants willing to suffer and die to protect the last priests in Japan, which was then repressing all foreign religion with violent executions.

Scorsese's film raises many questions for people of faith to debate: why is belief so often interwoven with doubt?  Why do people of faith often feel abandoned by God?  How can men of faith be seen by some (the church) as traitors to God (by apostatizing) yet heroic to others?  Why must human suffering be so terrible?

And finally, the cry from the Cross: "O God, why have you abandoned me?"

I recommend this beautiful film to all who want such religious questions presented in unforgettably striking images.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Hemingway and Writing

Three new biographical studies of Ernest Hemingway are out, even though they may not be needed.  The life of this overly celebrated writer has been thoroughly researched by many others.  I am more interested in the writer than the man who became a brand name.

Hemingway remains, says Fintan O'Toole in the current New York Review of Books, a fascinating object of study: behind his "outlandish public image," O'Toole says, is a trauma caused by World War I and a complex sexuality that resulted in a hypermasculine swagger that I have commented on before. He became, in the words of his third wife, a "loathsome human being."

But was he also a genius?  How influential is he today as a writer?  Well, he has been a major influence on the modern short story, especially its style; he was a master of the story form and produced at least three significant novels (The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and Old Man and the Sea) that reflect his cold-blooded view of human life in memorable tough-guy prose. Although he re-defined American prose fiction in the mid-20th century, he also wrote much that was disappointingly mediocre, the result probably of his drinking and multiple injuries.

Still, in his prime, Hemingway was a serious reader and fine craftsman who gave some valuable advice to writers.  Having revised the ending of A Farewell to Arms 39 times, as he said in an interview, he reminds us of the importance of crafting each sentence carefully and revising the resulting paragraph.

Revise endlessly, he said: "The main thing is to know what to leave out."
He mastered the iceberg theory of literature whereby three-fourths of what happens in a story is unstated, implied, as in his famous six-word story: "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn."

"The way you can tell if you are good," he said, "is by what you can throw away."  He claimed to throw away nine out of ten stories he wrote.

Since all style is personal, he said, "don't ever imitate anybody."  Writers, of course, steal ideas freely from one another but not style, which has to suit the subject, as it does in Hemingway; it also reflects the author behind the words.

I think the wannabe author can learn many techniques from reading Hemingway, such as the use of dialogue to carry the action and the value of concise, understated sentences. His work is a reminder of the axiom that suggestion is more powerful than statement.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

On Hitchcock

"I am never satisfied with the ordinary," Alfred Hitchcock said in his famous interview with Francois Truffaut in 1962.  This desire to be innovative in his cinematic style is one of the things that the French filmmakers of the Sixties admired and why they elevated the Anglo-American director to the pantheon of artists, not mere entertainers.

To be sure, several of Hitchcock's Hollywood features are mediocre or uneven; watching his final movie, "Family Plot," recently was a chore since neither the characters nor the plot had much appeal. I saw few signs of what I most value in the master of suspense: wit and the sense of having our leg pulled by a naughty, clever director.

It's the wit and ingenuity in "Strangers on a Train" or "Rear Window" that, along with tight editing and a striving for perfection in each scene, make these films among his best, along with "Psycho," "Notorious," and "Rebecca."  Also great are "North by Northwest" and "Vertigo," but here the characterization, often a weak spot in Hitchcock, along with the overly complex psychodrama involved, make it one of my least favorites.

Watching the DVD "Hitchcock/Truffaut" I was struck by how much more of an artist he was than "the master of suspense."  He exploited fears masterfully in images that, with painstaking precision, are memorable and original.  He mentioned the sad loss of silent films since, for him, the image is paramount, the dialogue quite secondary.  Some humor and motivation would be lost if his films were shown with music and no other sound, but they would remain great.

I watch my top "Hitch" favorites at least once a year and never tire of them. I can't say that for the work of other directors, and I believe, if Truffaut had not emerge to canonize Alfred Hitchcock as an "auteur" and master craftsman, others would have done so.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The President's Men

Donald Trump appears to be severely limited in intelligence, moral fiber, emotional maturity, and good sense, and he has surrounded himself, by and large with a cabinet of mediocrity or incompetence (which at least is more than you can say about the White House staff).

Take the words today of Ben Carson, HUD Secretary, who said that poverty is mostly "a state of mind."  If you are poor, apparently, in a country driven by greed and self-interest, it's a matter of outlook.

And he went further: Helping people may not better their lives, he said in a radio interview.  The unfortunate poor should pull themselves up by the bootstraps as he did and become brain surgeons.

Luckily, there does seem to be at least one cabinet officer with brains, courage, and honesty: Jim Mattis, the new Secretary of Defense profiled this week in a revealing piece by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker.

Key quote that struck me:  Asked what worried him most about America today, he didn't say ISIS or the defense budget but alienation.  He singled out the lack of political unity and "friendliness"; "it seems an awful lot of people in America and around the world feel spiritually and personally alienated, whether it be from organized religion or from community school districts or from their government."

Wow, this tough Marine Corps officer speaks in full, grammatical sentences about spirituality.  People, he rightly notes, are too often so self-absorbed in their individual pursuits (such as making money) that they have lost the sense of being connected to something larger than themselves.  No wonder, he said, they no longer care about their fellow man.

I wish it were possible for Mattis to educate his cabinet colleagues, especially Ben Carson.  But, of course, it's too late.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

When the well runs dry

What does a writer do when he or she can't write? Some desire to create is there but nothing comes; distractions replace inspiration.

It happens to us all, perhaps serving as a break from too much mental activity, a needed dry spell. It is not a cause for alarm.

It has happened to me in my fiction writing in recent months: fatigue and other commitments have gotten in the way of developing several ideas I have for stories.

This week I decided to take action, and the remedy I found most useful: reading something of quality, with style.  The novel I chose was the recent work of Andre Aciman, Enigma Variations.

It's too early to tell what I think of the novel, except that it is carefully crafted, full of detailed description, in this case of Italy at some time in the past; and for me, being absorbed in the author's language and dialogue is very helpful in moving out of my lethargy, not that it gives me ideas to borrow but something broader and harder to define: a sense of being connected to the world of words, a sense of borrowed confidence coming from an accomplished author.

I find myself intrigued by Aciman's exotic upbringing in Egypt, the son of Italian and Turkish Jewish parents who spoke mainly French at home, along with Arabic, Italian and Greek. What a cultivated milieu in which the young author was nourished, outlined in his memoir Out of Egypt.  I envy such a cosmopolitan background, which is more important to me than his doctorate from Harvard or his teaching in New York, where he now lives, since it has produced a writer of high skill.

Reading anything of quality (I find that many things in the New Yorker give me a jump start when my energy flags) is an often overlooked necessity in the life of any writer.  Two hours of reading might produce an hour or more of writing and the sense of relief that the well has not run dry.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Nature and our health

A friend just sent me an undated article from MIND reporting on research about the impact of being in nature on our sense of well being. As a writer who has long been cooped up inside, I savor my time by the lake or ocean or just looking at trees in my neighborhood; now I understand more about why the natural world is essential for my health.

In one study, 95% of those studied said that spending time outdoor improved their mood. Presumably, this did not include dreary, rainy days. Those who were stressed, anxious or depressed felt more calm and balanced. No surprise, really, yet it is so easy for us to be tied to our technology that we forget to look beyond our narrow horizon.

Another study said that time spent in nature, or viewing nature scenes, increases our ability to pay attention.  To observe the sky or water or a forest of trees is a respite from our over-active minds and refreshes us for new tasks.

I recall a quote from the writer Colette, a bit of advice to a young man:  Look closely at what pleases you. Observation and the complete focus on the beauty of the natural world takes us out of ourselves and at the same time feeds the soul, which needs beauty. This type of attention is the basis of art and of a basic kind of spirituality: being fully present to the now.

Even if we live in drab cities, it is not hard to find natural beauty somewhere, perhaps in a tree, whose very stillness can, upon lengthy observation, be calming.

All of this seems especially important for writers, who often begin with observation but too often stay in their heads: nature beckons!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Is courtesy dead?

Every time I visit a medical facility and find I am treated more like a number than a person, when I notice I am not addressed by name and that the chart or electronic record seems more important than I am, I wonder if basic courtesy is dying.

How rare it is to be called "Mr. Schiffhorst" anywhere or "sir," even by servers in restaurants. Of course, you might say I have a difficult name,  but when an eye technician or dermatology aide calls me nothing and says very little in what is essentially an intimate situation, I am amazed.

The topic of politeness came to my attention recently with a piece in the NYTimes by Molly Worthen, who writes mainly about careless emails and academic rudeness.  As a college professor, she is shocked that so many students call her by her first name and/or fail to send carefully edited email messages, both signs of disrespect.  All too often, she says, the informal practices of text messaging carry over into emails, which can be insulting in their lack of care: they often are unsigned and lack any sign of proofreading.

She notes that women and minorities are more and more demanding these days that students know how to address them (this used to be taken for granted). As a man, I was always Professor (or Dr.) Schiffhorst to the students at the university but didn't mind being called "Mr."  Has our culture become so casual it is now disrespectful? Or is it the many students simply fail to see that their informality is insulting to professionals?

Worthen reports that students at elite schools are often worse offenders in these matters of academic protocol than those at state schools. Is that what we call entitlement? Or is it that the young, female, possible Asian or African American instructor is an object of prejudice?

Note to students and others: it is not elite to be polite, to try to use the person's last name or academic title; it is not cool to dash off a message to an instructor via email that's full of errors. It shows basic lack of the human respect that we all deserve.  

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Why are we shy?

I have always considered myself a shy person, not as shy as many, perhaps, who cringe from social interaction or run. A friend of mine is worried about his 10-year-old son because he is too shy to speak up in class, even when he is the only one who knows the answer to the teacher's question.

In this case, the parents are both reserved, introspective so perhaps the boy's shyness is something he absorbed at home. Often it seems (to a lay outsider) that we are shamed as young children and this manifests itself as shyness around people.

In a recent article in Canada's National Post, Robert Fulford addressed the issue of shyness in discussing a book, "Shrinking Violets," by Joe Moran, whose historical and cultural research has turned up no scientific reason, given Darwin's theory of evolution, why so many millions of people are shy.  He considers it a mystery.  What use does it serve?

And I value mysteries--especially the often baffling and intriguing aspects of our behavior that defy expert analysis; besides, not everything in nature has a utilitarian purpose.

Fulford says some people have feelings of inadequacy that they don't acknowledge, so they experience shyness since they fear sounding stupid or looking uncool.  When people claim to hate parties, what they hate is small talk with people they hardly know. They haven't mastered the art, practiced by the British Royals and other celebrities, of asking questions of the stranger in an effort to shift attention away from themselves--and to help the awed stranger relax.

Before Moran makes a phone call, he writes out what he wants to say. Or he makes notes before going to a dinner or party so he is not at a loss for words. He finds this worrisome.   It seems to me that this is not some medical condition to worry about but to work on: with practice, the fear will gradually subside.

I think of my initial fear of standing before a class and lecturing, even though I had always wanted to be a teacher. I soon found ways to cope with this anxiety and have, in recent decades, come to enjoy speaking in public.

Although psychologists using the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) classify some people as having "social anxiety disorder," I wonder how useful such labels are for most people.  Recognizing the role of fear in our lives can be healthy--at least healthier than worrying about being shy.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Meeting our earlier selves

One strategy I have often enjoyed to get started writing is to find an intriguing quotation and react to it. I think of many of these posts as responses to a sentence or two; they are exercises in adding to the ongoing body of inherited ideas, planting a borrowed idea and seeing how it will flourish in my own soil.

I don't see total originality as a possible goal for me as a writer because I know I am indebted to all I have read and absorbed and to which I must contribute.

Today, thanks to Maria Popova, I found an arresting statement by Joan Didion: "We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not."

She is referring, I believe, to reviewing regularly her diary or journal entries from decades past and seeing what she was then thinking.

Didion's statement raises numerous questions for me. Can we in fact connect with the people we used to be? And: How much do we really change in a decade or two?

I don't have extensive journals in the confessional sense but a literary-spiritual journal that extends from 1980 to the start of this blog, and I am often surprised what I read there. The surprises are of two kinds: pleasant and unpleasant.

On the negative side, I am easily ashamed of the style of my earlier writing or at a naïve notion that I have recorded; I tell myself that my present self would never have written that. But the positive side is seeing how much I have learned, changed and developed over the years.  I have often been taken aback by a good insight I recorded in my journal, occasioned by an experience I have long forgotten.

The underlying question is: is the self I meet in earlier writing (or old photos) the same self as I am now?   My body over the years, including the brain, has changed radically, so in a very real sense I can say that I am not the same person I once was.

No wonder I shun school reunions since classmates of 40 or more years ago are not the same people I remember from our school days. You might say their inner or true self (or soul) is unchanged and unchangeable, but it is unlikely for anyone at a party or reunion to see each other's souls.

So I'm not sure I agree with Didion. I rarely review my old self except in the memories that are colored by my present apprehension of them.  Why should I revisit my struggles and insights of thirty years ago unless I want to remind myself of my progress since then--or the brilliance of a few of my former insights?

The main thing for me is that a quote like this becomes, for a writer, a great tool for exploring a new topic and discussing it with others. If you who are reading this have a reaction to Didion's statement, perhaps you could share it in the Comments section.  Thanks.

As a writing teacher, I know how useless it is for writers to think they must develop insights or stories out of thin air; no, we are always indebted to the vast web of insights recorded by others we can build on: hence the value of reading.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Lit Again
When I met several members of the Florida Writers Association recently to talk about "The Benefits of Blogging," I invited anyone interested to guest blog at this site. I am happy to say that Judith Minear accepted my invitation and sent in a brief memoir of a favorite teacher.  So thank you, Judy, for being my first guest blogger.   I welcome comments and ideas for future blog posts.  Contact me at

by Judith Minear


"Nothing moves me more-"

The note card had two elephants facing each other playfully. On the back was the  name of  an animal rights organization. Inside: pure gold.

English literature in high school has the potential to inflame young minds with the ability to find meaning in symbol. In the hands of an inspired teacher the flame can last a lifetime.  

Browsing thru the Facebook site for my suburban Chicago high school, I grew restless with the announcements of reunions and deaths that had nothing to do with the class of '64.  Boomers as a rule like to be connected almost as much as they crave recognition. I own these traits, perhaps I should not project them.

To the faceless unknowns on the high school Facebook group I inquired,  "Does anyone know the whereabouts of Joyce M or Dona K in the class of '64?" Since they were both cheerleaders I expected some name recognition. Joyce's niece responded and made the connection.  

An exchange of emails, photos and eventually phone numbers. Joyce looked much as I remembered her. While I hadn't actually given her much thought over the past 53 years, she thought of me every time she drove past my old house to see her now 97-year-old mother.
As we caught up we had no trouble filling in the missing years, including marriages as well as divorces and who was still around the neighborhood. To prove we hadn't lost our memories we supplied details of slumber parties and dances held in a repurposed building named the 'Morgue'. Then we struck pay dirt. Our English lit teacher was Mr Mabie.

Mr Mabie was a most unconventional English teacher. Collegiate studies were more his level of expertise, but he was stuck this year with naive high school students. That didn't stop him from showing us how to unpack a symbol. He demonstrated how the river is actually a character in 'Huck Finn'. He took us into the aims and imaginations of authors and helped us flush out some of the common themes of great literature. We read and memorized poetry.  

"I read the entire summer reading list," Joyce recalled. We agreed out of our four years this teacher had made a lifelong impact.

A quick internet search. There he was in California at 87 years of age. His address for the taking. I wrote him a note to tell him that Joyce and I were singing his praises. I reminded him of his novel approach to discipline for the always unruly student: he would simply point to the door and say," Out!"  I mentioned I had a rough first draft of a memoir. I thanked him for opening my eyes to words, symbols, meaning and my lifelong love of learning.  

One week later the elephants, known for their long memory, arrived from California.  The message on the card was terse but powerful.

"Nothing moves me more nor gives me greater pleasure than to learn that I've had a positive influence in the lives of my students.   Thank you, Jack."




Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Vatican and World War II

Do you ever wish you could interview a well-known author or performer and get to know him or her? Often I think of this after reading an obituary of a distinguished life. I am not thinking of popular celebrities but notable people I might have liked who made a difference in the world.

One such person is Sir D'Arcy Osborne, British diplomat in Rome, where he lived and died. He wasn't famous but he lived a fascinating life and seems to have had the best of both worlds: a life in Italy, which he loved, and an aristocratic English background, which meant he had money to hire servants and help refugees during the Second World War.

Most interesting fact: he lived in Vatican City for more than four years during the war, along with his butler, a female typist, his dog, and several Italian servants. How they all fit into the small suite provided at the Santa Marta residence (precursor to where Pope Francis now lives) is a minor mystery.

What he thought of Pope Pius XII, often a subject of controversy, is, of course, among the main things I would ask Osborne. According to a fascinating book I have just read, "Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War," by Owen Chadwick, Osborne generally admired Pius and defended him as humane and generous when the attacks were launched in the Sixties claiming that the pope was guilty of unpardonable silence during the Holocaust.

Even though he helped rescue as many as 800,000 Jews (according to an Israeli historian), Pius XII is often blamed for being too reserved in his language and failing to prevent the massacre of Jews. What's interesting is the British role in supporting Pius, hoping he would initially keep Italy out of the war, then relying on his neutrality and great diplomatic discretion to be a broker for peace. 

Chadwick's book, drawing on Osborne's diary and some of his dispatches to London, reveal much about this fair-minded Protestant diplomat and polished gentleman at the heart of the Catholic world at an impossibly tense time, when Rome was surrounded by Fascists and Nazis and the very existence of the Vatican was threatened.

I can't and won't go into defending or criticizing Pius XII. I will only say that Chadwick's account of Osborne's dealing with the leaders of Britain and the Vatican reads like a thriller. Consider the Vatican's role, with Osborne involved, in a top-secret plot to assassinate Hitler.   Although a recent book (by Mark Riebling) claims that Pius XII was himself involved in this plot and authorized it, thus helping to explain his silence after the war, it seems more likely that the Pope was not involved; but Osborne, the Brits, and some German Catholic resistance activists were.

I found this 1988 book in researching an upcoming talk on the papacy during these tragic war years, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn about Osborne, his diary, and his eyewitness view of one of the great dramas of the past century. Osborne was not a hero but he was a man of quiet courage who did his best in the midst of the horrors of war.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

What should I write about?

I remember being a young would-be writer in my twenties thinking, Aren't all the topics taken?  Haven't all the great stories been told?  Perhaps it was the result of being an English major and feeling hopelessly inadequate.

Of course, I gradually learned that, with knowledge doubling every few years and the range of information seemingly infinite, there is no dearth of material to write about, of people to quote or comment on, of experiences that can be turned into stories.

In my writing workshop recently, a student submitted a piece on visiting a laundromat (launderette) for the first time.  She assumed that everyone in America was like her: able to afford their own washer and dryer. But, facing a heavy, stained blanket, she decided that a larger washing machine was needed. She felt out of place at first, unsure what to do.

What she observed was a revealing cross-section of society: of people who avoided her gaze; they did not want to be seen publicly doing private things (folding their underwear).  She began to wonder what led a twelve-year-old boy to sort, wash, dry, and fold the family's laundry. She wondered about class distinctions, the haves vs. the have-nots.

The result was a subtle narrative that resembled a short story but was, in fact, non-fiction: it had happened to her. Since it was brief, I suggested it be revised and submitted as flash non-fiction. I had recently read about Dinty W. Moore, who edits Brevity, an online journal devoted to flash non-fiction and who has written widely on this new genre.

I hope my student's work is published there or elsewhere; if not, it showed us that concerns and fears (writer's block) about being original are unwarranted if we just look around at our daily life-world: there are stories everywhere. We don't have to create them from scratch or wait for divine inspiration.

This, I hope, is encouraging to anyone who resembles my younger self many years ago or anyone who is stuck with "what will I write?"  After all, it's the approach, the angle and style that we take to the ordinary that can make it extraordinary. What is personal is often universal (maybe always).

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Being violated

A week ago, at 5:30 in the morning, I was awakened by sounds from the kitchen. Surely the fridge, I thought, making ice. No, I realized, the sounds were something else, but somehow I did not get alarmed in the panicky sense.

I looked out the open door of the bedroom and there, down the hall, in our living room, was a burglar with a flashlight, opening drawers. The sight will be burned forever in my memory: a kid of 19, I later learned, who lives not far away, looking for drug money who was able to climb in through a kitchen window.

How I got to the phone I don't remember since the scene was like something from a movie, but, having called 911, the police were soon there, with dogs and helicopter and four cars with flashing lights. By then, my wife was awake and incredulous. They caught the guy within minutes nearby and retrieved what he had stolen from us (our car keys, jewelry, purse).

Having lived in this house, in this quiet neighborhood, for many years, having never been the victim of a crime, I was stunned that this invasion of my sanctuary could occur. I now find it hard to relax at night and often have trouble sleeping, even though more locks have been added, even though I know this is not likely to happen again.

But logic has little effect on primal fear. I now know what women feel around predatory men, or maybe even after a sexual assault: the feeling of being violated. My house, after all, is an extension of me.  The fact that our valuables were returned and no one was hurt does not alter the emotional impact of what occurred.

The fact that I handled the situation calmly cannot erase the memory of what happened. The space I had long counted on as safely ours has been altered. The world is not safe, not even where I live.

The reactions of friends has been interesting; most men hearing my story have tended to talk about what electronic protection I need; most women are horrified since they tune in at once to the trauma of being invaded.  One suggested I write a story about it, but, for now, writing this post and talking about it is enough.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Orwell: alive and well

In saying that George Orwell is alive and well, I don't refer to the dark element of Trumpism (Steve Bannon, et al.) today or the fears it has unleashed; I am not thinking of the novel 1984 with its theme of a totalitarian future with Big Brother watching us. It's too late for that.

Rather, I'm thinking of the classic essay from 1946, "Politics and the English Language," which once was required reading in my writing courses, even if some of the examples are, by now, dated and obscure.

No one has better captured the modern tendency toward abstraction and pretentious jargon than this essay.  And I am sorry to say my colleagues in the academic world of the humanities, especially English, are still committing the sins Orwell singled out.

Consider this sentence from a book recently published by the University of Michigan Press (its subject is Middlemarch, the classic novel by George Eliot, who would be appalled or amused by what passes here as literary criticism):

"The grammatical concatenation of subject and action is straightforward, even in the self-constitutive modality of the middle voice; but is the subject that is effected in the middle voice in any way phenomenalizable?"

This may mean something to a fellow academic forced to read such pretentious writing in order for the author (whose name I omit) to get promoted or tenured: who else would bother to read such prose, which is all too typical of academic writing with its abstract, jargon-filled language designed to impress one's colleagues?

And that was Orwell's point: too often words are chosen not for their meaning but writing is made from ready-made phrases, made fashionable by someone else.  The result is unclear, unoriginal, and often meaningless.  Concrete terms melt into the abstract, he said, and writers rely on clichés, vagueness, and jargon that fails to do what language is meant to do: communicate clearly to another human being.

If you don't know Orwell's essay, which shows how careless thought corrupts language and how careless language corrupts thought, you might find it on line. It remains timeless as an indictment of what passes for a great deal of literary criticism today, which I find impossible to read.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Men reading women

Do men who read widely (fiction, especially) bypass female authors and consciously seek out male writers?

The question hit me yesterday when I found an article by Lorraine Berry in Signature (3-15-17), "The Man Who Doesn't Read Women."  She is surprised and upset that her doctor, who likes to read, confessed that he has never read a female author. I assume this means other than a poet like Emily Dickinson assigned in school.

He prefers masculine prose, whatever that is, something unsentimental, full of action and tough-guy prose.  I wonder if the doctor has read Annie Proulx, whose prose style comes out of the American West; but, then, she is author of "Brokeback Mountain."

A friend of mine, also a doctor, read Middlemarch last year, the huge Victorian novel by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and was interested in Edna St. Vincent Millay. Is this unusual?

I can't imagine a sensitive man not wanting to get the feminine perspective on life, love, and other areas provided by such women writers as Louise Erdrich, Joan Didion, Hilary Mantell, P.D. James, and so many other contemporary writers.  I can't imagine a literate man consciously avoiding the female voice in prose or poetry.

A remarkable American poet who has challenged the stereotype of the manly man who reads only Hemingway-esque writers is Paul David Adkins. He served in the U.S. Army for 21 years in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. He then began writing poetry, mainly by women, and he found the 1989 collection of verse by Lynn Butler, my wife. As he indicates in his new collection of poems, "Flying over Bagdad with Sylvia Plath," he was inspired by Lynn's "Planting the Voice" and other poets, whose work inspires his own.

Mr. Adkins, who teaches at SUNY, is a remarkable man, a fine poet whose manly credentials are unquestioned, whose emotional and spiritual self has been wisely nurtured by the female muse.  In the heat of combat, he has turned not to pornography for escape or pulp fiction but to women poets. I'm sure he would have a fascinating conversation with Lorraine Berry's doctor.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The failure of Pope Francis

As he begins his fifth year in office, Pope Francis has deservedly received much praise for his pastoral openness, his major encyclicals, his candid remarks and, above all, for reviving the spirit of reform begun under John XXIII and long sidelined.

In the final analysis, though, he disappoints many like me for failing to address the central issue of the priesthood. Francis has boldly attacked the issue of clerical careerism as the root of the sexual abuse crisis, yet he is unwilling to take any action. His Curia remains defensive and, as Marie Collins in her letter today to Cardinal Muller indicates, more concerned with defending and protecting bishops than vulnerable children. Why, she asks, have no bishops been officially sanctioned or removed from office for their negligence in protecting children from pedophilia in the church?

Francis has been unable to reform the Curia or substantially address the clerical abuse crisis despite his honest efforts to do so. Four years should be enough time to see more progress than we have had.

Disturbing, too, were the Pope's off-the-cuff comments this week about seeing no need to change optional celibacy for priests: it has served us well for more than a thousand years, he said. Has it? And is not mandatory celibacy at the heart of the clerical, all-boys' network that runs the church and maintains an atmosphere of suspicion about human sexuality?

Debatable questions, perhaps, but I submit that until Pope Francis does something serious to rehabilitate the Catholic priesthood, which has long been on life support, with thousands of men each year leaving the active ministry to get married or live in an honest relationship, the future of the church, and of his pontificate, remain dubious.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The fate of truth in America today

I am always glad when two good writers come my way, each saying something important on a similar theme. This week it was an interview with George Saunders, the noted author, and an article by Andrew Sullivan (

Sullivan is reacting to the violent student protest recently at Middlebury College when a conservative (and controversial) speaker, Charles Murray, was invited to speak. More and more on liberal arts campuses, where one expects a respect for free speech and the open exchange of ideas, there is an ideological move to prevent a speaker whose views are politically incorrect, according to the prevailing culture.

Those who saw the video of students shutting down the talk by Murray, whose work I don't know, called it frightening. Sullivan compared the event to the shunning of heretics in 17th century Puritan New England. He finds the academic orthodoxy on such campuses alarming because it insists that all experience must conform to the prevailing ideology of gender, race, class, and sexuality; if a view differs, it is to be banned.  "Shut it down!" the students at Middlebury chanted. "We see this talk as hate speech."  Yet they didn't want to listen to what the man had to say!

As I read about this latest event in campus un-freedom of thought and expression, I wonder, Why not listen to an opponent's views and try to respond to  them intelligently? If they are factually wrong, offer a reasoned response that corrects them.  Why not respect an invited speaker's right to speak on a campus where ideas are meant to be aired and challenged?
Isn't that what an education is all about?

The irony, as Sullivan notes, is the bizarre similarity of this episode to the Trumpists among us who insist on discounting facts, and truth, if they do not correspond to the ideology of the ruling party.  Donald Trump and his followers show hostility and contempt for facts that don't fit their view of reality. A judge who challenges him is called a "so-called judge."  Experts in intelligence gathering at the CIA are ignored or maligned as politically motivated. This notion that orthodoxy of any kind is superior to facts and reason is dangerous and alarming.

It is one thing for him to try to distract the American public from his problems by making wild allegations (Obama bugged his phones?); it is quite another to undermine truth by scoffing at facts and at those who uphold them. Or to have his appointees to high office hold views on the environment contrary to that of established science. It would all be laughable if it were not so serious.

This is where George Saunders comes in: He sees America today as fragile, for the first time; the American experiment could actually fail, he says, because of "the horrible degradation of our notions of truth, decency, and civility have undergone." Notice, our traditional notions: the received wisdom of our laws and traditions are being questioned, along with common sense.

He, like Sullivan, and many others refer to the present situation as Orwellian.  This is especially frightening when this also applies to what happens at a prominent liberal arts college.

Saunders has the final word: "Writing and reading and speaking with specificity and skill has never seemed more important to me than it does at this moment.  It's what's between us and chaos."

Monday, March 6, 2017

Football and University Priorities

If you are a student at a large state university paying a student activity fee, or a loyal alumnus donating annually to alma mater, you might think you are contributing something of importance to higher education. Something you or someone in your family might benefit from.  Think again.

According an article in the Orlando Sentinel (3-3-17) by David Whitley, lavish spending on athletic facilities, with fancy waterfalls and Italian lounge chairs, to attract potential players has been on the increase. Scholarships are, apparently, not enough, or a new stadium.

At the $138 million sportsplex at Oregon, the ventilated lockers come from Germany, the wood floors from Brazil, and the lounge chairs  in the barber shop from Italy.  Alabama has four waterfalls in its hydrotherapy room. Florida is about to build a $60 million manor for football players (who are being treated like professional athletes), not for the average students who pay the student activity fee.

My own University of Central Florida wants to raise $25 million for an athletic village featuring a "lazy river" of meandering pools, the kind we associate with luxury resorts. Why?  Because schools like UCF are trying their best to outbid each other in the effort to attract future players and to keep their present star athletes suitably pampered.

Whitley says that, in 2014 alone, the top-tier, Power Five schools spent $772 million on such facilities, and that was double what was spent a decade earlier.

Much has been written about the vast expense of trying to please alumni and friends of the university with huge salaries and perks for football programs, but these figures blew me away.

And what fundraising is being done to help faculty salaries or anything related to education, the actual business of these schools?  What is being done to pay adjunct (part-time) instructors a living wage so they don't have to take on six or more classes to make a minimal ($20,000 annually) salary, with no benefits?  Very little, if anything.  There is no glamour there.

As I saw each year I spent at UCF, state money is available each year for more administrators with inflated salaries as the university has come to resemble a huge corporation rather than a place of learning.  And for football, which supposedly brings wide publicity and major donations that help the school, the sky is the limit, as these figures indicate.  The problem keeps getting worse, with a sense of priorities a lost cause.

My alma mater wisely dropped its college football program more than 60 years ago because it was too distracting, too expensive. The focus at St. Louis University has been on quality education for the students as well as its proud, but a reasonably priced, basketball program that keeps SLU out of the big-league world of mega-sports competitive madness.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Two men named John

I have been reading about two remarkable figures of the 20th century, both of whom died in 1963:  Pope John XXIII and John F. Kennedy, born one hundred years ago.

It's hard to take that in since JFK seems forever an icon of youthful energy, despite being burdened by daily pain and much suffering.  The list of his life-long ailments is astounding, mostly hidden from public view during his life.  I have been reading Gretchen Rubin's Forty Ways to Look at JFK, a handy way to approach this complicated man (even if she doesn't really give us forty perspectives).

Why does this assassinated President, who served barely three years in the White House, remain in our minds as one of the greatest presidents, even if his actual accomplishments are less than great?  Rubin does a good job of responding to this issue of image and character; I might comment more fully later when I give a talk on this book.

The other talk I am giving deals with Pope John and the Jews: both his courageous work to secure the rescue of thousands of Jewish and other refugees during his days in Istanbul (1943-44), which is not well known, and his breakthrough outreach to Jews as pope.  In calling the Second Vatican Council, he addressed the Catholic Church in relation to the world and to other religions, and found, as a former diplomat, that a major cause of anti-Semitism is rooted in Christian belief and practice.

Hence came the landmark document Nostra Aetate, which declared, officially, that the Jews should not be held responsible for the death of Christ and should not be blamed but respected as the elder brothers of Christians.  He and his successors went on to condemn anti-Semitism as a great evil.

He was, in the words of Rabbi Moguilevsky of Buenos Aires, "a man truly created in the image of God." He could not have done more than he did to save the lives of thousands of Eastern European Jews at the end of the war, and later to re-orient Christianity in a more positive way, especially in embracing Jews.  He is now known as St. John XXIII.

The two Johns worked together, indirectly, at one of the most critical moments of the century: the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.  Because Pope John, warm and genial and skilled in diplomacy, believed in reaching out to adversaries, he had been in contact with Premier Khrushchev. Kennedy, desperate for a solution, had sent the writer Norman Cousins to Rome; this resulted in the Pope writing the Russian letter begging for peace. Khrushchev, an atheist, welcomed the gesture and saw the papal letter as a means to end the stalemate between the Soviet Union and the U.S. over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Nuclear war was averted.

The full details are outlined in many books, including the two biographies of John XIII I have consulted: one by Peter Hebblethwaite, the other by Thomas Cahill. I am grateful to both authors, and to Gretchen Rubin, for reminding me of the two major figures of the 1960s and the century.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The challenge of change

Living with major changes is never easy, and the older I get, the more of a challenge it is to have established practices upset or schedules altered.

The past month, along with the world in upheaval now that Trump is trying to run the White House, has seen the shocking death of a friend, 55, who hid her terminal cancer from everyone.  She emailed us in early January and by the end of the month was gone. We had relied on her for advice, legal and otherwise.

Soon thereafter, our long-time family physician announced his retirement, effective almost at once. More turmoil. The YMCA near me, where I have been exercising and meeting friends, is being torn down and replaced, in two years, by something grandiose, taking away from hundreds of locals a familiar "second home."   How can I adjust to all this change?

One constant in this cycle of turmoil and change are the daily email meditations from Richard Rohr, the recent ones reminding me of the importance of contemplation.  After years of reading and practicing this, it is still a challenge, but the advice of Rohr, along with that of Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating and other spiritual masters, helps me understand the importance of gazing at something I like, paying such rapt attention to the reality of the present that I can stop analyzing and judging; I can stop thinking.

To take in an entire scene or object (a tree, for example), whether attractive or not, without labeling it good or bad, is a pure and positive act that stops time, as it were, for fifteen minutes or so as I breathe deeply and relax my body as well as my mind.

For me, this silent period of calm contemplation is prayerful, but it doesn't ask for anything or require established beliefs. It implies gratitude for the chance to step back from our thinking selves and just look at what is real in front of us, but the free flow of consciousness need not include intentional gratitude.

If I don't take time to do this--and it is not as easy as it sounds--I will be jerked around by distracting information, noise, fears and worries, caught up in the turbulence of the world around me, ready to shout, "Stop, world!  I want to get off!"

As for the political madness and mayhem, my other remedy is to turn to satire (Andy Borowitz and others) and comedy to gain some detachment from the anger I tend to feel, as I remind myself of the growing resistance movements that are afoot.  The world, then, begins to look less bleak.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Signs of Humanity in the Digital Age

As one who enjoys the benefits of the digital age, I am often looking for signs of the older technology, signs of human connection so often missing when two people think they are relating to each other electronically but really are not. 

So the news of progress in the retro world of games, paper and print, found in Bill McKibben's review of a new book by David Sax (The Revenge of Analog), is very welcome.

Sax, like so many others, is concerned that the internet and other digital media, instead of forming a community, has made us more isolated; two people on their laptops in the same room are in different worlds.

So it is good to know that, just as vinyl records have had a huge comeback, so has the Moleskine notebook, which like any paper notebook, invites the kind of creativity and spontaneous writing or drawing that Hemingway or Picasso would have used.  Many young people, along with their iPhones, carry a black notebook.  Why?  The digital world provides a lot of opportunity, Sax says, for wasting time, for dispersing our attention from one thing to another in an endless stream of information.

A paper journal, like a printed book, limits us, concentrates our attention, rather than disperses it.  Magazines that have increased their subscriptions in the old-fashioned print format realize that people still like to have a text with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's not that consumers today are neo-Luddites, reacting against technology; it's that the older alternatives can be more inviting and more conducive to the imagination.

Consider the growth in board games. People want to be with other people, to share with them, to laugh and compete in real time, face to face.  The negative effect of video games on the imagination is an issue, so it is good to know that simple games that bring people together are thriving.

McKibben's piece in the current New York Review of Books is worth reading and might motivate you to check out the book by Sax.  Both agree with many other observers and experts that the computer revolution has real drawbacks in leading people to self-absorption, isolation, and to taking online classes that bore them.  Students want and deserve instruction that doesn't merely present facts but establishes a relationship, just as nearly everyone I know still prefers the concentrated focus that a printed book offers over an e-text.

I think the lesson here is that we can have the best of both worlds--and that, like the recent presidential campaign conducted extensively by tweets, the electronic form of communication by itself is severely limited. Even dangerous.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Dying and the Community

I just learned that a man I have known for more than twenty-five years died last year.  This news came as a great shock, even though he was neither young nor in great health.  The shock came from not knowing when I phoned his home to ask how he was doing.

He was not a close friend but always stayed in touch with people by forwarding humorous emails; he established a community online in his retired years, for which I was grateful. I am glad to remember him in that happy context.

His widow told me he was firmly opposed to having a funeral or an obituary or anything public. In this, I guess he is not unique, but it troubles me that no public notice, available in the media or online, is made of deaths. It seems to me that each birth and each death in a community is of vital importance and deserves to be known.

The reason for such privacy also bothers me. Is it a sense of shame about dying, some hidden fear?  Why does a man want to slink away like an animal in the woods and expire unsung, unheralded?  It seems to me his friends, including those of us who shared in his many emails, should be told so they can support the family with their thoughts and prayers.   I would think his family deserves to feel such support.

But it is not for me to be critical of my late friend or his family, only to remember him among all the others I have known who have left this world.

As John Donne wrote in his famous Meditation XVII ("For whom the bell tolls"), "each man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind."  He was writing, of course, as a Christian in a society united by the shared belief that no one can be isolated from the community into which they are born and baptized.

It is impossible today to apply that way of thinking to our diverse, pluralistic society. But I still think everyone deserves a bit of public recognition at the end of life's journey.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Living in a Post-Truth Era

Michael Chabon's latest book, Moonglow, begins with a disclaimer about the factual basis of his narrative, which represents, he says, "the truth as I prefer to understand it."  Chabon, of course, is a novelist with a sense of humor; he makes things up.  Those in the public sphere--political leaders and the media--do not.

In the political world now emerging under Donald Trump, facts and reason are somehow suspect.  If a Republican disagrees with an assessment by a reputable Secretary of State (John Kerry), he is called a liar. If the incoming president does not like what the CIA reports, he rejects it as fake news.

Fact-checking the internet, as the editor of Snopes says, is seen by many conservatives as a left-wing conspiracy since everything in the media is not to be trusted, apparently, and reality itself seems up for grabs.

This is an Orwellian nightmare come to pass--lies are truth--and it's the most alarming and dangerous aspect of the Trump movement, which has apparently been in the works for some years as facts have become, for those who dislike them, a partisan issue.

The problem is that Americans no longer share the same mainstream sources of news (the major TV networks) since the social media and the diversity of cable news allow people to pick and choose where they get information. This means there is no shared, agreed upon standard of truth, of what is factual, and hence no basis for the trust on which the overall society is based.

Jeremy Peter, writing a few weeks ago in the New York Times, says that "fake news" has been expanding to include any facts that do not fit the right-wing ideology. He quotes a radio host, who said, "we've effectively brainwashed the core of our audience to distrust anything they disagree with."  So all fact-checking reporters, trying to present a fair and balanced picture of reality, are challenged, and the result is mass confusion, chaos and distrust. The truth has, for some, become a matter of opinion.

I feel sorry for the people at Snopes, which for twenty years has been fact-checking urban legends of various kinds, since their efforts are now scoffed at in Tweets that have come to dominate the news.

What is real?  What is true?  To answer such vital questions, along with rationality, we turn to philosophers and other serious thinkers, not political hacks.  Unless we agree on facts as the basis of what is real and true, how can we proceed as the world's leading nation?  What is the basis of our trust? 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Thoughts for the New Year

Will this be a good new year?  I am encouraged by news (courtesy of Heartfulness meditations) that, in Asia, sports stadiums have been booked for the benefit of those who wish to spend today in meditation. Wow!

I can't imagine such a thing in this country, where money, noise, and football dominate the sports culture. Of course, many people today pray, I hope for world peace and (I hope) for the inner peace that makes interaction with each other peaceable. We have to work hard, day by day, for a less violent world.

How can we do less hating?  A message from Richard Rohr at the end of the old year reminds us that cognitive science shows that the brain holds on to negative thoughts (like Velcro) whereas positive thoughts slip off (like Teflon).  To retain a positive experience, he says, you have to intentionally hold on to it for fifteen seconds to allow it to imprint your brain.

This means we have to deliberately, consciously choose to love rather than to hate. The fear that leads to anger and hate comes easily, just as the memories of being wounded cling to the brain; but to re-wire ourselves to be positive, caring, and compassionate requires an effort. It takes work to remain each day in the present moment rather than recalling old hurts and hatreds.

As Rohr says, many decent people in our society, in churches as well as in politics, are much more at home with hate than with love; and they don't know this. They have not been taught to focus on the good.

So, to live in a loving way and thus to make an individual contribution to the greater good, requires great spiritual work. No one ever said that peace came easily.