I was walking out of Phelps Hall after teaching my Reading Fiction for Craft class. An Orthodox Jew—a Chabadnik, a Lubavitcher, I’m guessing, since he was doing outreach—approached me with a lulav and an etrog. Excuse me, he said, are you Jewish? I am! I said, Chag Sameach! During the brief time that I was both a Jew and a Brooklynite, I never really wanted to deal with these guys, but tonight, I welcomed it. Chag Sameach, he said, you have time for a quick mitzvah? I do! I said. He put the lulav in my hand. Repeat after me, he said, and we said the lulav blessing. Halfway through the prayer I realized out of the corner of my eye that he had a partner who was also asking passers-by if they were Jewish. Then he put the etrog in my other hand, and we said the Shehechiyanu. The Chabadnik seemed like a happy teacher when I caught up with him in the prayer, when I wasn’t just repeating after him. I thanked them for the mitzvah. Now my right hand smells like etrog, like I’ve been holding a lemon, except something different, more exotic, something sweeter than a lemon. I don’t want to wash my hand.
I wrote the following for a holiday limerick contest on Facebook. Alas, it lost:
Christmas lights on an evergreen tree,
A roaring fire, drinks après-ski.
A ham in the range,
Plus presents exchanged.
Wait, we’re Jewish! Quick—order Chinese!
Goodness, I feel like I have houseguests whom I maybe should have expected were going to come over, but for whatever reason did not.
What I mean is: this Web site, my personal site, usually gets about one or two visitors a day, according to Google Analytics. This is somewhat by design: as you can see if you know how to read the source code of a Web page, I’ve got my Robots meta tag set up according to the Robots exclusion standard.
<code><meta name=’robots’ content=’noindex,nofollow’ /></code>
So it’s surprising and wonderful that 52 unique visitors stopped by last Tuesday—all but one linking from my bio at the bottom of “Memorial Day,” the essay I wrote for the wonderful Tablet magazine.
Even the two days after that were record-breaking for tomhop.com, at least in recent memory—17 visitors on Wednesday, 7 on Thursday.
I’m delighted by the response to the essay. I’ve gotten so many kind and thoughtful notes from friends and family who’ve read it. There may be thoughtful responses elsewhere, but given how personal the piece is, and given the sort of trolls that like to lurk around tabletmag.com, I’m determined not to read any of the 18 comments that have been posted to the piece since it was published.
Also interesting, and perhaps unsurprising, is the fact that suddenly my “Judaica” category of posts got very popular last week.
So here’s one big way in which I’m unprepared for unexpected houseguests: I’ve been neglecting to post all kinds of good news about recent publications, not just about Tablet:
—My story “When the Immigrant Is Hot,” which was a finalist for the Schlafly Beer Micro-Brew Micro-Fiction Contest, is in issue #85 of River Styx, which came out this past spring;
—I wrote an article called “Network: How to Use LinkedIn to Connect With Your Community,” which is in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers—the full article is readable online;
—My story “What I Remember of My Love Affair with the Bird” is in the current issue of Fence—you can read it either in the print version (v. 14, #1-2) or online, on Fence’s excellent new Web site;
—My stories “Our Libretto Conundrum,” “The Songs Our Local Birds Always Sing,” and “Catching the Rollers” will be in the next issue of The Cincinnati Review (I’m just reading the galleys now);
—My story “The Coat My Mother Gave Me,” which was a finalist for the World’s Best Short-Short Story Contest, will be in Southeast Review v. 30, #1, which I think will come out next spring (I just signed off on galleys earlier today).
And if you’ve never been to my site before, and you came here for the first time because you read my essay in Tablet, or any of the above articles, welcome, and thanks for visiting! The digs are modest, but I’m awfully glad you stopped by.
Do you know the book Bagels for Benny (by Aubrey Davis, illustrated by Dušan Petričič, Kids Can Press, 2003)? It’s really great. Benny helps out in his grandfather’s bakery; the grandfather tells Benny that his customers shouldn’t really thank him for his bagels, but instead should thank God, since God made the wheat from which they’re made; to thank God, Benny starts taking bagels and secretly putting them in the ark at their synagogue every week, where they promptly disappear (Benny and his grandfather eventually discover that a homeless man has been eating them; it’s the mitzvah of anonymously helping someone get back on his or her feet).
When the grandfather discovers what Benny’s been up to, they have this conversation:
“What are you doing?” Grandpa bellowed.
Benny spun around.
“Grandpa!” he gasped. “I’m thanking God.”
“You’re putting bagels in God’s Holy Ark!” cried Grandpa.
“But he likes the bagels,” insisted Benny. “Every week He eats them all.”
“Oh, Benny!” Grandpa laughed. “God doesn’t need to eat. He doesn’t have a mouth or a stomach. He doesn’t even have a body.”
The last time I read the book to Toby, when we got to this line, Toby said, “God does have a mouth!”
I told Toby (and I’m paraphrasing myself here), “No, he doesn’t—God isn’t a person. God is—well, the idea of God means different things to different people. He’s—”
Toby interrupted me. “He’s a monster,” he said. “He’s a kangaroo. He’s a blanket. He’s a yogurt. He’s a crown.”
I quickly jotted those things down. Then I asked Toby what else God was. “He’s a wind chime,” he said. “He’s a giraffe. He’s a cup of tea.”
All of which, I believe, is—from many, although not all, theological vantage points—entirely correct.
1) From last week’s New Yorker, from David Remnick’s lead Talk of the Town essay (“A Man, a Plan,” on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu):
Psychobiography in politics is ordinarily a mug’s game.
2) Which sent me to Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter?, which is where I remember first encountering the phrase; he mentions it in “Bourgeois in Bohemia,” an essay that I think started out as a review of the first volume of The Letters of T.S. Eliot:
The public Eliot who emerges at the end of these letters is a survivor—wise but disillusioned, socially astute but cold, stiffly middle-aged at thirty-four. He saw literary life as petty and sordid. ‘Poetry is a mug’s game,’ he once remarked in the British English he gradually adopted (a mug being a dupe). By 1922 Eliot had resolved to be a mug no longer. He negotiated lucrative deals for his books and plays. He grew modestly wealthy by giving readings and lectures. And he advised every youth who would listen to avoid poetry as a career. He knew too well its emotional cost. The Greek Nobel Prize laureate George Seferis recounted that when Eliot heard about a young man who wanted to dedicate himself to poetry, he remarked with unenviable authority, ‘He’s getting ready for a sad life.’
3) But where and when did Eliot write “Poetry is a mug’s game”? The answer is out there on the Web, but I tried to get to it the wrong way: I looked up The Letters of T.S. Eliot on Google Books—which is there, but its content, unless I’m missing something, is not searchable.
4) So I looked in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (15th edition, pre-Justin Kaplan), and got this (from p. 809, quote 19; the citation is from the conclusion of The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism):
As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career, but a mug’s game. No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.
5) So it’s British English idiom—but what meaning of “mug”? Emily wanted to know. So I looked in her compact OED. From page 1129, from the fifth meaning of the word mug:
1.a. A stupid or incompetent person, a ‘muff’, ‘duffer’; a fool, simpleton; a card-sharper’s dupe. slang.
b. mug’s game, a thankless task; a useless, foolish, or unprofitable activity. colloq.
6) From the next paragraph in the Gioia essay:
Much of the difficulty Eliot faced in early adulthood came from his inability to distance himself from his parents’ bourgeois Republican values. Although Eliot wanted to become a poet, he never expected to give up his comfortable standard of living. While Pound contently accepted an existence at subsistence level, hardly worrying about next month’s rent or this week’s groceries, Eliot could not bear even the possibility of economic uncertainty. What Pound saw as la vie bohème, Eliot viewed as squalid poverty. In his twenties he already worried over life insurance and retirement savings.
7) You should see Barney’s Version. Toby’s wonderful babysitter came over this past Saturday night; Emily and I went to see it at Upstate Films over in Rhinebeck. It’s really good.
8) I searched for the phrase “blogging is a mug’s game” on Google; yes, unsurprisingly, more than one person has written this on the searchable Web already.
9) From my phone interview with Edward Albee five years ago; this, understandably, didn’t make it into the article I wrote for Poets & Writers about the Albee Foundation. This wasn’t off the record, so I think it’s okay to reproduce it here:
Albee: February […] is the cruelest month in Montauk. Where all the suicides take place. All the fishermen kill themselves in February.
Me: That’s terrible.
Albee: It’s the cruelest month. What did Eliot know.
Me: He was over in London, he had no idea.
Albee: But he was from America. You’d think he’d remember about February.
Me: Maybe it was somewhat different out in the Midwest, where he was from.
Albee: I suppose, yes. Where was he from?
Me: He was originally from someplace like southern Illinois.
Albee: Oh was he? That’s pretty bad. Oh well, that’s practically in the South.
Me: So you can see why he ran away, I guess.
Albee: Yeah. Boy did Ozick try to damage his reputation.
Me: Who did?
Albee: Cynthia Ozick tried to really damage Eliot’s reputation by hitting hard on that specifically British anti-Semitism of his.
Me: He’s got a lot of detractors.
Albee: I know—but just read the poetry.
Me: You’d hope that it would stand separate from the person.
Albee: If we only liked the work of nice writers, we’d be nowhere.
10) Thinking about the conflict between bourgeois values and bohemian values makes me think of something Walter Mosley says at the end of the first chapter of This Year You Write Your Novel:
Straightforward procrastination is an author’s worst enemy, but there are others: the writer who suddenly has chores that have gone undone for months but that now seem urgent; the diarist who develops a keen wish to write about her experiences today instead of writing her book; the Good Samaritan who realizes that there’s a world out there that needs saving; the jack-of-all-trades who, when he begins one project, imagines ten others that are equally or even more important.
Forget all that. Don’t write in the journal unless you’re writing a chapter of your book. Save the world at 8:30 instead of 7:00. Let the lawn get shaggy and the paint peel from the walls.
But we own, Mr. Mosley! What will peeling paint do to the resale value?
11) As I’ve written elsewhere, today is the birthday of Matthew Broderick, Bridget Jones, and me.
12) I don’t quite know where I’m going with all this, but I do think I need to take a break from sending out short stories to literary journals and contests. Maybe a year off. Which is, I’m guessing, not an idea for an “I did X for a year!” book.
But it might buy me back quite a bit of time.
(Week-of-unrelated-quotes catch-up post, four of five.)
From The Finkler Question, p. 177 in the Bloomsbury paperback: Julian Treslove is the protagonist, who, at this point in the novel, although not born Jewish, feels like perhaps he is Jewish; Finkler and Libor are two old friends, both born Jewish, both men Jewish in very different ways (Finkler very British, I think, and self-loathing, and a famous philosopher; Libor much older than Treslove or Finkler, and their former teacher, and a former film critic, and very Czech). Hephzibah is Treslove’s new girlfriend, also born Jewish, and Libor’s great-great niece by marriage. Here, Treslove has recently moved in with Hephzibah, and Libor and Finkler are coming over for dinner:
When Libor arrived, Treslove truly felt outnumbered. Hephzibah exerted an unexpected influence on his two guests—she dissolved their Jewish differences.
‘Nu?’ Libor asked of Finkler.
Treslove wasn’t sure if that was the way to report it. Do you ask ‘Nu’ of? Or do you just ask, transitively? ‘Nu?’ he asked. And is it even a question in the accepted sense? ‘Nu,’ he said. Would that have been better? Nu, meaning how are things with you, but also I know how things are with you.
So much to master.
I like how the work of the writer and the thoughts of the protagonist blur there momentarily in wondering about how to attribute the quote. I like what follows, too:
But the surprise was that Finkler answered in kind. When there had been no Hephzibah he had castigated Libor for his Jewish barbarisms, but today he twinkled like a rabbi. ‘A halber emes izt a gantzer lign,’ he said.
‘A half truth is a whole lie,’ Hephzibah whispered to Treslove.
‘I know,’ he lied.
(Week-of-unrelated-quotes catch-up post, two of five.)
Walking up the stairs to my office at my new job the other day, I walked past two boys talking; I couldn’t say for sure how old they were (nine, maybe ten?—I’ll understand these nuances in 2018; in the meantime, I know very well the differences between, say, 21 months and 24 months, 15 months and 12):
I mean, I will have a Bar Mitzvah. And I read Torah every once in a while. But I’m not religious.
From Wonder Boys, p. 275 of the paperback (the movie tie-in edition, with Michael Douglas on the cover): a paragraph that ends with what I think is a great sentence, but one that’s hard to extract from what comes right before it—which, in turn, is somewhat impenetrable out of context. Here’s the opening:
I looked at James, remembering the sight of him in the Gaskells’ backyard, the trembling flash of silver in his hand. Then I looked down at the spine of the book Crabtree had handed me and saw, to my amazement, that it was a rebound copy of The Abominations of Plunkettsburg, by August Van Zorn, property of the Sewickley Public Library. According to the circulation label it had been checked out three times, most recently in September of 1974. I closed my eyes and tried to clear my head of this proof of the uselessness of Albert Vetch’s art, of all art and energy and human life in general. There was a sudden rumble of nausea in my belly and the familiar spray of white noise across the inside of my skull. I waved my hand in front of my face, as though shooing away a cloud of bees.
If you’ve read the book, you’ll probably remember this scene, when Crabtree and Grady go to rescue James from his parents’ house; if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll recognize the characters: James is Grady’s young student who almost shot himself in the head earlier in the weekend, in the backyard of the house shared by Grady’s lover and her husband, Grady’s boss; Crabtree is Grady’s agent; and August Van Zorn (Chabon’s Kilgore Trout, in a way, although the comparison isn’t perfect) is the pen name of Albert Vetch, a hack who lived in the hotel where Grady grew up, and whose work as a pulp horror writer Grady and Crabtree discovered a shared affection for when they first met in an intro fiction class in college. The book is one of many that James has stolen from the library. Wonder Boys is set, I think, roughly in the early nineties; in other words, 1974 was a while ago. Which all leads to this:
I saw that I could write ten thousand more pages of shimmering prose and still be nothing but a blind minotaur stumbling along broken ground, an unsuccessful, overweight ex–wonder boy with a pot habit and a dead dog in the trunk of my car.
Which keeps haunting me. In spite of the inclusion of “human life in general” in the list of things that are useless, I read this to be the narrator realizing that if you make great art, but are still a lousy human being, the former doesn’t in any way absolve you of the latter. The quotidian side of the obligation to do good—being an honest and righteous person in your everyday life, in your daily interactions with people, is imperative, regardless of the greater effect your work may or may not have in the wider world. (Your great novel, brilliant discovery, innovative nonprofit, etc. might change somebody’s life, but does that give you permission to treat your friend, your child, your spouse, your gas-station attendant, your employee unkindly? No.)
Does Chabon feel this way himself? I get the feeling he does.
Is it not that far a leap to go from this to the President saying “I can say without hesitation that the most challenging, most fulfilling, most important job I will have during my time on this Earth is to be Sasha and Malia’s dad“? I think it’s not.
If I have wronged you, the person reading this, in any way in the past year, I am sorry, and I hope you will forgive me.
If you have wronged me in any way, I forgive you.
From an era when not only did a writer have a reasonable shot at making money off a short story—if he or she really wanted to make the big bucks, he adapted it for the stage: the epigraph to the short story “The Day of Atonement,” by Sampson Raphaelson:
So Sound and Dramatic Is this Tale That a Manager Plans to Make a Play of It. The Author Confesses That He Isn’t the Idol of Millions of Readers Now, but We Predict That He Will Make Friends Fast
Raphaelson did write a play based on his story, also called The Day of Atonement. The play then evolved into the screenplay for The Jazz Singer (1927, Al Jolson)—and, I’m assuming, served as the template for the screenplays of all subsequent versions (1952, Danny Thomas; 1980, Neil Diamond—and maybe even the 1959 version Jerry Lewis did for television that’s mentioned on Wikipedia?—that’s the only one Emily and I haven’t seen).
The story “The Day of Atonement” and its epigraph are reproduced in the appendices of the screenplay of the original 1927 Jazz Singer (p. 147), published in 1979 (a year before the Neil Diamond version was released).
A footnote on the first page of the story reads: “Everybody’s Magazine, January 1922 […] Raphaelson changed the spelling of his given name from Sampson to Samson when The Jazz Singer was produced.”
I can remember driving with my late father through western Pennsylvania. He was struck by the amount of land without a human figure in it. So much space! After a long silence, in a traveler’s trance resembling the chessboard trance, he said, ‘Ah, how many Jews might have been settled here! Room enough for everybody.’
—Saul Bellow, The Bellarosa Connection (p. 79 in the 1989 Penguin paperback ed.) (Thanks, Ted!)