Notes on a Brief and Failed Dare, and Reasons for Hope

a postcard to Barbara Lee

My failed dare started when I triangulated these three things:

So many of us run from intimacy by using hobbies, a job, or events that, on the larger scale, you know deep in your heart aren’t nearly as important. Instead, try a new habit that links you. Write a thank-you note every night to someone—a teacher, a coworker, a doctor, a friend, or your spouse.

Mehmet Oz, Prevention magazine, October 2012

As spectators we are disdainful, sneering; as partisans we are responsible, sensitive to what the moment demands, and convinced that the sense of meaning grows not by spectacular acts but by quiet deeds, day to day.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Existence and Celebration”; from Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays

Use the mail. Use the mail. Use the mail. Use the mail.

Many of you are doing simple actions of resistance and protest. Allow me to suggest another. May I suggest you begin to use the Postal Service. First let me remind you that you do. A letter carrier has you on a route 6 days a week. But we all have cut back on contributing on the front end of the act. […] Send postcards, letters, there is even a rate for media mail. It is a quick action. One you can do between calling your rep, signing a petition on line etc. Heck, send me a postcard. I will respond.

Michael Martone

I triangulated these things on the dark days right around the Electoral College vote. And I had the idea: on top of phone calls and petitions and marches and letters and postcards, could I also send a thank-you note every single day? Specifically, could I, from 20 December 2016, the Electoral College vote, through 20 January 2021, the inauguration of the next President, write at least one note of kindness and gratitude per day?

I tweeted:

A dare: From 12/20/2016-1/20/2021, mail ≥1 public &/or private notecard or postcard/day. 1,492 days. Hope, thanks, pluralism, civics, love.

I made it eighteen days.

Why did I fail at this? In part, to be honest, because it’s hard to track down everyone’s addresses. In part because I was trying to carefully document the whole thing (too carefully and thoroughly, really): transcribing the text, photographing the postcards, then writing a tweet about the postcard I’d just written. It was too much to do every single day, without fail, for 1,492 days.

I’m good at the without-fail part.

But maybe I have limits.

And then, speaking of fire, there is burnout, the genuine exhaustion of those who tried—though sometimes they tried in ways guaranteed to lead to frustration or defeat (and then, sometimes, they burned out from being surrounded by all these other versions of left despair, to say nothing of infighting).

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (p. 21)

Maybe we all have limits individually.

But together, we are unstoppable.

From the Indivisible Guide: “Figure out how to divide roles and responsibilities among your group.”

From my friend KC: “Remember: you are meant to feel overwhelmed, dismayed, despairing. […] We are standing together but we are dividing up the work.”

I am resisting. I’m in the crowd. I’m calling, I’m signing, I’m using the mail.

I think I’m old enough to know myself well enough to know that I’m probably never going to be leading the march. But I’m solidly in it.

I’m bringing what I’ve got to the fight.

The Daily Themes of Peter Matthiessen

I’m a tutor in English 450: Daily Themes this semester. It’s a legendary class; famous alumni include Calvin Trillin, who wrote about it for The New Yorker (“No Telling, No Summing Up”), and Peter Matthiessen, who died last April.

When I describe the class, I usually repeat the story that Matthiessen’s first published piece began in Daily Themes. But I’ve been wondering: is this true? It looks like it is. But what was the published piece? And what was the theme? What follows is as close to discovering the answer to those questions as I’ve gotten. (Which bring up more questions: e.g., was the story published before he graduated, or after?)

The next step, it looks like, would be visiting an actual physical library.

Daily Themes (now English 450), is a Yale Classic. Its disciples write a 250-500 word “theme” five days a week for every week of the semester—a practice that encourages odes to childhood and puppy love, eavesdropping at street corners for inspiration, and, eventually, an addiction to writing. Daily Themes has been in existence since about 1901, and its list of famous graduates is long.

Beinecke Top Tens: Daily Themes

Born in New York City in 1927, Peter Matthiessen published his first short story, written in his Daily Themes class, in the Atlantic Monthly in 1951, the year after he graduated from Yale.

Bright Pages: Yale Writers, 1701 – 2001, J. D. McClatchy, Ed.

Yet another member of Fenton’s spring 1950 fiction writing class was Peter Matthiessen, author of such major works as The Snow Leopard (1979), At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991) and Shadow Country (2008). Like many students in the class of 1950, Matthiessen served during World War II before enrolling at Yale. He showed tremendous early promise as a writer, publishing a story in the Atlantic Monthly while still an undergraduate. On the strength of that, Fenton arranged for him to return after graduation to teach in in Daily Themes and the Short Story writing class during 1950-51.

—Scott Donaldson, Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story

Encouraged by winning the prestigious Atlantic Prize for a story he had written as an undergraduate, Mr. Matthiessen found a literary agent, the steely Bernice Baumgarten, and sent her the first chapters of a novel.

—Christopher Lehmann-Haupt “Peter Matthiessen, Lyrical Writer and Naturalist, Is Dead at 86,” The New York Times, 6 April 2014

Valor! Love! Virtue! Compassion! Splendor! Kindness! Wisdom! Beauty!

I read the following last night, in the middle of a thunderstorm.

The entry is from 1971. “The original journals are small, looseleaf notebooks, approximately one to a year, into which Cheever typed his entries (badly), although there are also some passages written in longhand,” writes Robert Gottlieb in his editor’s note. “He did not date most of the entries, which is why we didn’t.”

I drink gin and read some stories of mine. There is the danger of repetition. Walking in the woods, I heard a man shouting, “Love! Valor! Compassion!” I followed the voice until I saw him. He was standing on a rock shouting the names of virtues to no one. He must have been mad. The difficulty here is that I wrote that scene ten years ago. Oh-ho.

—John Cheever, The Journals of John Cheever, p. 277

Google brings up Terrence McNally’s Author’s Note to Love! Valour! Compassion!: “The title,” he writes, “comes from an entry in John Cheever’s journals.”

The story Cheever refers to is “A Vision of the World” (I Google-triangulated via here, here, and here). The story was originally published in the 29 September 1962 New Yorker. Here’s the second half of the last graf:

Then either I awake in despair or am waked by the sound of rain on the palms. I think of some farmer who, hearing the noise of rain, will stretch his lame bones and smile, feeling that the rain is falling into his lettuce and his cabbages, his hay and his oats, his parsnips and his corn. I think of some plumber who, waked by the rain, will smile at a vision of the world in which all the drains are miraculously cleansed and free. Right-angle drains, crooked drains, root-choked and rusty drains all gurgle and discharge their waters into the sea. I think that the rain will wake some old lady, who will wonder if she has left her copy of “Dombey and Son” in the garden. Her shawl? Did she cover the chairs? And I know that the sound of the rain will wake some lovers, and that its sound will seem to be a part of that force that has thrust them into one another’s arms. Then I sit up in bed and exclaim aloud to myself, “Valor! Love! Virtue! Compassion! Splendor! Kindness! Wisdom! Beauty!” The words seem to have the colors of the earth, and as I recite them I feel my hopefulness mount until I am contented and at peace with the night.

The Road to Parnassus; or, A Note on My Approach to Workshop Criticism

A decade ago—man, Nicholas Carr is right, blogging is “like mahjong or needlepoint”—I sent Maud Newton a link to a piece Jay McInerney wrote in 1989 for the New York Times about Raymond Carver, his former teacher (“Raymond Carver: A Still, Small Voice“).

Maud quoted two paragraphs from it about Carver’s gentle approach to teaching (“He said that there was enough discouragement out there for anyone trying against all odds to be a writer”)—but not the anecdote in the very next graf, which is a great bit, and one that doesn’t seem to be all that widely quoted or linked to out there on the Web.

I realized this this past fall, teaching a section of Reading Fiction for Craft at Yale. Some of my students—15 intimidatingly brilliant young minds—didn’t think my feedback on their exercises were critical enough. So I recounted the following story about Carver’s approach to teaching (starting with the last few sentences Maud quoted):

One day when I berated him for going easy on a student I thought was turning out poor work, he told me a story: he had recently been a judge in a prestigious fiction contest. The unanimous winner, whose work has since drawn much praise, turned out to be a former student of his, probably the worst, least promising student he’d had in 20 years. “What if I had discouraged her?” he said. His harshest critical formula was: “I think it’s good you got that story behind you.” Meaning, I guess, that one has to drive through some ugly country on the way to Parnassus. If Carver had had his way, classes and workshops would have been conducted entirely, [sic] by students but his approval was too highly valued for him to remain mute.

Once he sat through the reading of a long, strange story in his graduate writing workshop: as I recall, the story fleshed out two disparate characters, brought them together, followed their courtship and eventual marriage. After a series of false starts they decided to open a restaurant together, the preparations for which were described in great detail. On the day it opened a band of submachine-gun-toting terrorists burst in and killed everyone in the restaurant. End of story. After nearly everyone in the smoky seminar room had expressed dissatisfaction with this plot, we all turned to Ray. He was clearly at a loss. Finally he said softly, “Well, sometimes a story needs a submachine gun.” This answer seemed to satisfy the author no less than those who felt the story in question had been efficiently put out of its misery.

The double meaning of the punch line makes me wince, these days. But the point still resonates.

I don’t know if my (self-aggrandizing?) attempt to compare myself to Carver was at all helpful (“[Professor Hopkins] doesn’t have a hard bone in his body,” one student wrote in her/his evaluation, “but that is okay”).

In spite of my students’ criticism of my criticism, I’m not sure if I’m going to change the way I respond to student work. I don’t know if I can.

The world, as Carver said, is discouraging enough; some of us, I think, need to be the encouraging ones.

Alas, Poor Country

From Act 4, scene 3.

An excerpt, with an ellipsis in the middle.

Text cut and pasted from MIT’s Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

ROSS

Alas, poor country!
Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
Be call’d our mother, but our grave; where nothing,
But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air
Are made, not mark’d; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy; the dead man’s knell
Is there scarce ask’d for who; and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.

MACDUFF

O, relation
Too nice, and yet too true!

MALCOLM

What’s the newest grief?

ROSS

That of an hour’s age doth hiss the speaker:
Each minute teems a new one.

[…] But I have words
That would be howl’d out in the desert air,
Where hearing should not latch them.

MACDUFF

What concern they?
The general cause? or is it a fee-grief
Due to some single breast?

ROSS

No mind that’s honest
But in it shares some woe; though the main part
Pertains to you alone.

MACDUFF

If it be mine,
Keep it not from me, quickly let me have it.

ROSS

Let not your ears despise my tongue for ever,
Which shall possess them with the heaviest sound
That ever yet they heard.

MACDUFF

Hum! I guess at it.

ROSS

Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes
Savagely slaughter’d: to relate the manner,
Were, on the quarry of these murder’d deer,
To add the death of you.

MALCOLM

Merciful heaven!
What, man! ne’er pull your hat upon your brows;
Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.

MACDUFF

My children too?

ROSS

Wife, children, servants, all
That could be found.

MACDUFF

And I must be from thence!
My wife kill’d too?

ROSS

I have said.

MALCOLM

Be comforted:
Let’s make us medicines of our great revenge,
To cure this deadly grief.

MACDUFF

He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

Texting on the Microwave; or, the Experience of the Street in New York City

I do not have a cell phone. I do not have a BlackBerry. I do not have a—what do you call it—computer—or any of these things. A microwave oven—whatever of these things—all of which seem like the same thing to me, by the way. You know? Like, if you tell me, “Well, the microwave oven, can you text on that?” “Yes,” I would believe you. Okay? So I have none of these machines, which is what allows people to not be wherever they are. Okay? But since I don’t have them, and I’m forced to be where I am all the time, which is why I’m noticing what other people are doing. Okay? Most people aren’t noticing where they are, because they’re not really anyplace. They’re—if you are, like, doing this?” [She mimes texting on a BlackBerry.] “That’s where you are. I don’t care where you’re doing it—that’s where you are. So the experience of the street, say, in New York, which I have, commonly, you know, every day? I’m one of the very few people in the street, having the experience of the street.

—Fran Liebowitz in the movie Public Speaking, from about 54:15 to 55:00.

VOOM, AH-WHOOM; or, The Cat in the Hat Strikes Back

Every time I read this (which is often—sometimes nightly; from Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat Comes Back; p. 59 in the Beginner Books Book Club Edition, copyright 1958—our copy still in great shape and going strong!):

Then the Voom…
It went voom!
And, oh boy! What a voom!

Now, don’t ask me what Voom is.
I never will know.
But, boy! Let me tell you
It does clean up snow!

I think of this, the scariest moment in Cat’s Cradle, when the dead body of “Papa” falls into the ocean, freezing the entire planet (from the fifty-sixth printing of the New Dell Edition; copyright is 1963, print date is July 1983—half the age of the Seuss, and completely falling apart, but still functional!):

There was a sound like that of the gentle closing of a portal as big as the sky, the great door of heaven being closed softly. It was a grand ah-whoom.

I opened my eyes—and all the sea was ice-nine.

The moist green earth was a blue-white pearl.

The sky darkened. Borasisi, the sun, became a sickly yellow ball, tiny and cruel.

The sky was filled with worms. The worms were tornadoes.

In other words, for me, reading The Cat in the Hat Comes Back brings back childhood Reagan-era fears of a nuclear war—isn’t it about the Bomb, the arms race, the Cold War, capitalism, American exceptionalism?

Much of Seuss, in a way, is about capitalism—about the anxiety of a culture of conspicuous consumption (“Have you a Zans for cans? You should.” “We have the only Gack in town.” “[Y]ou should get a Yink.” “All girls […] [s]hould have a pet like this at home.”).

But that enthusiastic voom!—it freaks me out.

Notes on Mug’s Games

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.

And:

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.

See also: “Something versus Nothing,” “Only Half an Hour.”

Nu Mettle

(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.

Meet the New Pleasure Dome, Same as the Old Pleasure Dome

(Week-of-unrelated-quotes catch-up post, three of five.)

From Eliot Weinberger’s critique of a show at the Met, “The World of Khubiliai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty,” which closed last month:

Yuan meant “origin”—as in “back to the origins”—and Khubilai [Khan] revived ancient Confucian court rituals and had a dynastic history written in the traditional manner to justify its heaven-endowed legitimacy. His greatest claim as a Chinese emperor was that the Yuan eventually unified the country as it had not been in centuries. The Jin Dynasty had conquered half of the Song Dynasty, but the southern portion continued on for 150 years. The Southern Song, a wealthier and more populated region, with some 50 million people, had become weak and bankrupt as—in a pattern that has become all too familiar—the rich managed to legally avoid paying taxes while military expenses greatly increased.

—Eliot Weinberger, “Xanadu in New York,” The New York Review of Books, 23 December 2010