This month, our school hosted a Progoff Intensive Journal Workshop. One workshop exercise involved writing a dialog between each participant and someone who has influenced him. I chose Bob Lax, who gave up and moved to Patmos to wait and write.
Instead of writing a dialog, however, I found myself writing a dozen poem-like things. I may be in the same place as I was eight years ago when I wrote a few Lax-inspired pieces.
This week, in a different kind of meeting, I tooled around with my newest Lax-inspired things, making lots of revisions. Some people with artistic training get through meetings in a similar way with doodles, of course, engaging their eye to egg on their ear.
Lax, though, missed all memos, made no meetings, and (maybe as a consequence) made few revisions to his own poems. They came out of him after long waits, and whole as eggs.
Poet Dave Bonta came up with “poem-like things” to describe some of his own work. I haven’t written poems, much less poem-like things, in years. Dave also occasionally compares writing poems to having bowel movements. Perhaps, then, I should call these my Laxatives.
I’ve posted my first four; the rest will come in December.
It’s Sunday morning, and it’s 34 degrees outside. I haven’t turned on the air conditioning in over a month, and I’ve yet to turn on the heat since we moved here. Of course, the weather has been fairly moderate. But in the condo now it’s 67 degrees, the lowest it’s ever been in here. The president asked us to keep our thermostats in the winter at 68, so I’m doing him one degree better. (It was President Nixon, admittedly, but I don’t believe his successors ever rescinded the request.)
My theory is that the units around us are paying for our heating and cooling. They moderate our quarters’ temperature since we adjoin them at two sides and at the ceiling. Sad to say, we have our own water heater. And when Victoria wakes up, she may make me try out the heat. Maybe she’ll sleep late — its supposed to get into the 50’s today — or maybe I’ll turn on that lamp against the thermostat.
It’s our first fall in a condo. So far, so good. As my fellow boomer and new condo resident Abby Imus said on the front page of today’s Washington Post, “There’s not one thing I miss about my house.”
The full title would be “the story of how I realized something while reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, together, eventually, with an exposition of that something.”
Footnote: It is not just the realization. Every honest exposition is part narrative, and every narrative needs its setting. These are things I believe, by which I mean, perhaps ironically, things that require no narrative, truths that transcend all narrative, principles that emanate from a stillness so entire that narrative explodes in their presence by virtue of the stillness’s virtue still emanating from them as they themselves emanate from that stillness, and the talebearer must, to recover his “and then’s” and and “and then’s,” round up the receding stars of his narrative with a stardog or chase them down with a net, whichever is more to the task. End of footnote.
We’re moving next month, I’m teaching at a new school this fall, and I started a graduate program in composition studies today.
The move isn’t far, but it’s big. We’re moving a few miles west to Leesburg, a lot closer to my new high school. But we’re moving from our single-family house where we’ve lived for seventeen years to a one-bedroom condo, which we’ll rent for at least a year. We feel like moving is opening our arms to whatever comes next.
We are starting a three-day weekend by hanging out. Victoria and I have returned home from our respective gyms. I have been perfecting my hot chocolate. I use 2% milk and Hershey’s “Special Dark” cocoa powder. I work from Hershey’s standard recipe, doubling the chocolate, cutting the sugar by 87%, substituting stevia1 for that sugar, and doubling the vanilla.2 Thick and, from what Victoria tells me, bitter. Delicious.
I’m reading three books right now, but mostly two biographies, one of John Locke, which I read from a book by night, and the other of Robert E. Lee, of which I “read” an unabridged recording by day. I’m enjoying both, though I occasionally conflate their lives and get the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries mixed up. Well, the Psalmist says that “the night and the day are both alike to thee.”
The Locke writer, Maurice Cranston, has little sense of narrative, but he’s English, has a wry wit, and wrote the year I was born, so I like the different feel of the book. The Lee writer, Michael Korda, seems fair to Robert and Mary and loves to point out Robert’s humor and mildly flirtatious way with women. I must say that it’s difficult to bring either man to life as much as I admire them. Locke was secretive by nature, making any written mention of his romantic interests in code and destroying almost all of his political letters. I guess the letter-burning is understandable, given the tumultuous English seventeenth century. Lee, of course, was just plain shut-mouthed, and he seemed to do all he could not to become his garrulous, querulous father, “Light Horse” Harry Lee.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that neither Locke nor Lee cared much for reading fiction. West Point forbad reading fiction while Lee was there, though he later won over his beloved Mary Anna Custis’s mother by reading to the two of them from Anne of Geierstein, Sir Walter Scott’s then-latest romance.
I do wish Lee, an avid nonfiction reader, had read Locke. The Civil War might not have lasted so long. Of course, had the Union won quickly, we might be living still with constitutionally sanctioned slavery.
- If you’re going to try stevia, I’d suggest Stevita’s “Spoonable” packets from a box. Other brands sell stevia mixed with artificial sweeteners and label it as stevia, and even Stevita does the same with one of its other products. ↩
- So without reference to Hershey’s recipe, here’s mine: 1 cup hot (but never boiling, mind you) 2% milk, 4 tbsp. Hershey’s “Special Dark” cocoa powder, 1 packet Stevita stevia, 1/2 tsp. vanilla. If you don’t have a good hand blender, you’ll want to mix the dry ingredients first and slowly add the milk and vanilla while constantly stirring. This keeps you from drinking clumps of powder. ↩
“Because you haven’t lived.”
– a friend on why writing was not coming easily for me
Thursday, as I walked the aisles, a kid asked an odd question: had I any lead? He raised his mechanical pencil and, by way of explanation, clicked it vainly.
I walked to my cart. When I returned, I held before him the same pencil, down to its bright, green plastic barrel — a Pentel Twist-Erase Click 0.7, PD 277. He reached for it, but I opened it and instead gave him two leads. He opened his, too, smiling.
I asked him, as the class finished its freewrite, if he had found that the eraser retracted into the barrel as he rubbed it against the paper, but he didn’t know. There hadn’t been much to erase.
I’m writing this post with a black version of the same pencil — my home version, perhaps no older than my student’s. I hope I don’t lose it. I want to find out if its eraser, once you have to start twisting it out, retracts with use, too. If it doesn’t, then my school one may be an aberration and I’ve found my pencil.
Photo “Palimpsest” by waterboard. Used by permission.
Job is like Lear. The curtain opens on a fairy tale. In it, the play’s chief authority, God (or King Lear in Lear), cuts a dubious deal, relinquishes authority and, in the process, does his most loyal subject a bad turn. When the fairy tale fades, the dialog develops between the newly minted sufferer and his newly dubious friends. This conversation dominates both plays.
And, like Lear, Job is theater. It’s mostly dialog, of course, and the absence of a setting (unless you know where Uz is) puts us all on stage, like any good play. Job refers to “east . . . west . . . north . . . south,” but Jewish Theological Seminary Professor Raymond Scheindlin prefers translations that have Job refer in chapter 23 to what Scheindlin calls a “smaller compass” – to “forward . . . backward . . . left . . . right” (197). Job’s left is our north; Job’s stage is our world, firmly founded on the primeval waters that separate it from Sheol (201).
The idea of Job as theater recurs while reading Scheindlin’s The Book of Job. Scheindlin, for instance, discovers a number of what he calls “buried stage directions”:
But you, all three, return! – Come back! –
Not one wise man do I find among you.
You turn the night to day,
……pretend that light is closer than the face of darkness. (17:10, 12)
Marvin Pope describes the stage directions in his Anchor Job a generation before Scheindlin’s 1998 translation, but Pope doesn’t sharpen them the way Scheindlin does. Scheindlin’s translation also emphasizes how Job’s words feed off those of his friends, an essential component of theater or even plain, old argument. The above lines leave out verse 11, for instance, because Scheindlin flips verses 11 and 12, the latter verse being, as Pope says in the Anchor translation, “quite incompatible with the context.” Scheindlin’s move sharpens the dialogue.
I’ve had the feeling, reading the usual English Bible translations, that the swords between Job and his friends clash only when some ancient, unfathomable convention permits, that Job and his friends are delivering set pieces, speeches that require all parties to chiefly parrot the Bible’s party line. Scheindlin doesn’t find this approach in the original. For instance, Job isn’t going along with his friends’ reliance on discernment and on the ancients’ wisdom in chapter 12, as the King James and its progeny suggest. As a good rhetorician, Job simply restates his opponents’ position before challenging it:
“The ear,” they say, “is the best judge of speech,
……the palate knows what food is tasty.”
“Wisdom,” they say, “belongs to elders;
……length of years makes a man perspicacious.”
He has wisdom and power;
……He has counsel and insight. (12:11 – 13)
(Emphasis Scheindlin’s.) By restating his friends’ positions, then, Job isn’t assenting to them. Instead, by setting God’s omnipotence above aphorisms championing human discernment and the ancients’ wisdom, Job anticipates Elihu’s argument, and even God’s, towards the end of the play.
Turning to a bigger swath of text, Scheindlin resolves the problem of chapter 27 by emphasizing Job’s mockery of his friends through his close adherence to their argument structure. Some scholars read this last response to Job’s friends as Zophar’s missing third speech because it seems to take up the friends’ argument. Here Scheindlin, unlike other translators, doesn’t move a line but sharpens the focus as far as the text allows to take “Job’s imprecations as ironic.” Job repeats his friends’ insinuations that laden their talk about the wicked’s fate, but he makes it into a curse against his friends for their own unproven wickedness.