Home again

 My family adventure of the last nine days contains three highlights: meeting my granddaughter, driving many miles, and seeing the Grand Canyon.

  1. Those of you who have met a grandchild for the first time already know what I would be describing. The rest of you might or might not understand. Either way, words fail to convey the most important moments of a voyage that lasted slightly more than two hundred hours.
  2. The voyage, from driveway to driveway, was roughly 1,900 miles, or a bit more than 3000 kilometers. We were in five states but saw license plates from 46 states (missing only Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, and Vermont). We experienced open highways and construction delays. We saw spacious skies and also drove through heavy rains in northern New Mexico and Arizona. (Who ya gonna call? Drought-Busters!) We observed smoke and ash from western wildfires. Our trip included mountains and canyons, hills and valleys, prairies and deserts and conditions in between, oaks and pines and mesquite and sagebrush and cacti (clearly planted in crop rows) and corn and alfalfa. At one point we drove through the region where Apollo astronauts practiced walking on the moon. (Only on the last day of our voyage did it occur to me that, at roughly the same time fifty-two years earlier, three men spent nine days in a little metal box so they could walk for an hour or two on the surface of the moon. They had no rest stops, no restaurants, and no motels—just a long trip in a small metal box.) We saw the Hoover Dam and Area 51. I stood—not at a corner, but in a gas station—in Winslow, Arizona. We should have turned left at Albuquerque.  
  3. When we told people back home that we planned a side trip to the Grand Canyon, they assured us that we would be amazed and astounded and awed. That concerned me—when people tell me how to feel, I often feel the opposite. But viewing the Grand Canyon was memorable and impressive. Rather than merely driving there and looking around on our own, we paid to join a tour group that traveled from Flagstaff, Arizona, up to the South Rim and back. Our driver and guide was a geologist who also leads hiking and rafting tours through the Grand Canyon. He drove us to six different locations on the South Rim, giving us twenty or thirty minutes at each location to view the Canyon and explore the area, while he parked the vehicle and then met us again, sparing us much of the hassle that many tourists face in that National Park. A generous lunch was included in the package, and our guide was able to share copious information about the geology, history, flora and fauna, and significance of the Canyon and its surrounding area, including personal anecdotes and observations. He mentioned, for example, that most of the deaths at the Grand Canyon are the result of heat and dehydration, not from falls into the Canyon. The guide said that an average of five people a year die in the Grand Canyon but that there have already been ten deaths this year. (A later Internet search gave an average of twelve deaths per year at the Grand Canyon, but that statistic included aircraft crashes and drownings in the Colorado River.)

For the journey, I brought books from my long-term reading plan and also drafts of writing I hope to publish. I found little time for the latter project, but I did keep up with my reading. Ironically, before going to sleep the night after we visited the Grand Canyon, my reading included the following selection from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five: “…and Billy was flung back into his childhood. He was twelve years old, quaking as he stood with his mother and father on Bright Angel Point, at the rim of the Grand Canyon. The little human family was staring at the floor of the canyon, one mile straight down. ‘Well—’ said Billy’s father, manfully kicking a pebble into space, ‘there it is.’ They had come to this famous place by automobile. They had had seven blowouts on the way. ‘It was worth the trip,’ said Billy’s mother raptly. ‘Oh, God—was it ever worth it.’ Billy hated the canyon. He was sure that he was going to fall in. His mother touched him, and he wet his pants. There were other tourists looking down into the canyon, too, and a ranger was there to answer questions. A Frenchman who had come all the way from France asked the ranger in broken English if many people committed suicide by jumping in. ‘Yes, sir,’ said the ranger. ‘About three folks a year.’ So it goes.” J.

Of many books there is no end

  Last night I read Psalms 149 & 150 and also Revelation 21-22. This morning I read Psalms 1 & 2 and Genesis 1-3. These readings are part of a pattern I established years ago, reading through the Bible in one year (and covering the book of Psalms five times each year). Although those selected readings may create an impression that I read the Bible from cover to cover, I actually alternate between the testaments. In January, for example, I will read Genesis, Matthew, and Ecclesiastes. In February I will read Exodus, Hebrews, Romans, and Song of Songs. I try to keep the longer books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) separated from one another; I try to match themes between the testaments as much as possible.

I also read other books: devotional books, philosophy, history, literature, fantasy and science fiction, poetry, drama, and the classics. Since the beginning of January 2001, I have kept lists of books I am reading and have finished. In this way, I have been counting the books I finished each year over the past twenty years.

In 2020, I smashed my previous record, probably because of the virus crisis and quarantine. Between January 1 and December 31, I finished 205 books, far beyond the earlier record of 176. In fact, my reading in 2020 actually increased my twenty-year average from 123.7 to 127.8. And these were not all short and easy books. They included the works of Soren Kierkegaard (which I actually started more than a year ago, so some of them were counted in 2019). They included the works of Leo Tolstoy (yes, even the epic War and Peace, unabridged). They included philosophers Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Rosseau, the Federalist, de Tocqueville, Thoreau, Emerson, and William James. In all, I read roughly 65,000 pages in 2020.

This being the dawn of a new year, I have started my reading list for 2021. I will read several volumes of Martin Luther’s works, will pick up some twentieth century philosophers (including Dewey, Nietzsche, and Freud), will read the works of Mark Twain and those of Kurt Vonnegut, and some other books besides. I will read the five books I got for Christmas this year. I will also read the first twelve volumes of Britannica’s Great Books; I already read the first twenty pages of Homer’s Iliad this afternoon.

I like to read. I like to relive old experiences by reading books I have read before. I like to learn new things. I like to see things from a different perspective. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that he had tried meditation, but he found that all the benefits promised from meditating happened for him when he was reading. That is my experience as well.

I tell prospective writers that they need to do three things: they must read a lot, they must write a lot, and they must rewrite a lot. I’ve got the first two skills down pretty well; I don’t always carry through with the third. Reading develops communication skills. It exposes the mind to better ways of expressing one’s self. It improves vocabulary, grammar, style, creativity, and thoughtfulness. More than any other means of communication, reading and writing allows communicators to reflect upon what is being said and to refine and polish the communication before sharing it with others.

For all I know, this could become one of those busy years when I don’t even finish one hundred books. Or I might have lots of spare time and set a new record. Either way, I will enjoy the books I read, and I will benefit from the exercise. Of that I can be sure. J.

A novel idea

At times I have thought about taking my fantasies of winning the lottery (or becoming a major league outfielder, either one) and making a novel. By sharing those thoughts with you today, I am breaking one of the cardinal rules of authorship: Never tell anyone what you are planning to write, because you will lose your enthusiasm for the topic once you have shared it. But I am coming to terms with the reality that I will not live long enough to write all the books I have in mind, so I might as well share some of that material here.

I envision the novel as having a character unstuck in time, like Billy Chapel in Slaughterhouse Five. That way I can move back and forth across this life-changing event and show both sides of the character’s fortune, what life was like without all that money, and what life was like with all that money.

We join our hero (who so far is unnamed) in the parking lot of a grocery store, where he is carrying a bag of groceries to his car. He sees a scrap of paper blowing in the wind, and he picks it up to drop it in a trash can, because that is the kind of person he is. Before he reaches the trash can, though, he notices that the scrap is a lottery ticket, and that the drawing for which this ticket is eligible will be that same night. So he slips the ticket into his pocket and doesn’t think about it any more. The next day he opens his newspaper, sees the lottery numbers chosen the night before, remembers the ticket, and pulls it out of his pocket. All the numbers match. He has won the grand prize, more than three hundred million dollars, and he never even bought a ticket.

A few days later the lottery commissioner presents him with a large replica of the check he will eventually receive. During the interview, our hero carelessly comments about finding the ticket in the parking lot. “I’ve never been a supporter of the lottery,” he confesses candidly. “Even after winning all this money, I don’t recommend that anyone buy lottery tickets. Look at all the people who bought lots of tickets and didn’t win a dime.”

More than a dozen people immediately claim that they bought the winning ticket and dropped it in the parking lot. Each wants a share of the prize, up to half the winnings. Hero hires a private investigator who meets with each of the claimants, then reviews security tape from the store. Only three of the people making the claim have any evidence that they actually bought a ticket. Hero pays the investigator and then meets with the three viable claimants. He reminds them that if he gives money to all three of them, he will be rewarding two liars. That he does not want to do. With Solomonic wisdom, he says that he will give a portion of the winning to whichever of them asks the smallest amount from him. One immediately asks for one million dollars, another counters with $950,000, and the next suggests $925,000. After a couple more rounds of diminishing requests, one of the three drops out. The other two have brought their demands down to about ten thousand dollars when the third one says, “Me, I’d be content to get back the two dollars I spent on the ticket.” Hero pays him the two dollars, and the others go away, threatening legal action. None is ever taken.

So how does our hero spend his winnings? I’ll cover that in a post or two next week. J.

Obsessive and compulsive reading

I am an obsessive and compulsive reader. Notice that I did not use the word “disorder.” There is nothing disordered about my reading. It does not interfere with my life, but in fact it enriches my life. All the same, I use my library in a way many people would find unnatural.

On any given day, I generally read from four or five books. (This does not include my daily Bible reading or any work-related reading.) In college, when I was taking four different classes and reading different kinds of material for each class, I was quite content. Now that I’m no longer in school, I continue my education, reading from an assortment of books that cover history, philosophy, theology, science, and literature. My mean average of books finished in a year is 120. (Yes, I keep track. My range since 2001 has been 91 to 176.)

As I start a book, I check how many pages it contains, and I calculate how many days I will be reading that book. A difficult book might hold me to twenty pages a day, an average book thirty pages a day, and an easy book forty or fifty pages a day. One of my coworkers has a husband who has the same habit. She has commented that she does not understand that habit—she reads to enjoy reading, and counting pages (in her opinion) lessens the enjoyment. Neither of us is able to explain to her why we count the number of pages we read in a day. We just do it.

In 2009 I arranged all my fiction books alphabetically by author and chronologically within the work of each author. I then started with Douglas Adams and began reading each book from beginning to end. Sometimes the jump from one author to the next is jarring—switching from Henry Miller to John Milton was recently quite a jolt. When I am finished with Milton, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is next. I’m looking forward to that book—I picked it up at a used book sale years ago and still haven’t gotten around to reading it. I’ve seen the movie more than once, and some of my daughters own copies of the book. One of them reads Gone with the Wind every year or so. This will be my first time.

If I like an author, I try to acquire all of his or her books. In my collection I have most of the books written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut. I also have impressive collections of books by Dave Barry, Soren Kierkegaard, C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther, and Walker Percy. I have a copy of every book written by Richard Nixon, and I have about fifty books about Nixon, his presidency, and Watergate.

I have a shelf of books devoted to poetry and another devoted to drama. I have a shelf of books about King Arthur, ranging from fantasy works to historic investigations into the original Camelot.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that he tried meditation, but every benefit promised by meditation, he gained from reading a book. I quite agree. After a stressful day at work, nothing is more relaxing than time to read. I might be obsessive and compulsive about my books, but that’s OK—they keep me sane. J.

The muse: a femme fatale

Last month I attended a public lecture given by a local painter. Toward the end of his talk, he began to speak of the muse. Since ancient Greece, artists and creative people spoke of the Muses as spirits who guided them in their work. This painter did not have kind words for his muse. As well as I can remember, this is what he said: “The muse cares about the art, not about the artist. She will use him to produce art until he drops dead from exhaustion, and she does not care. At any whim she can cast him off and abandon him without a second thought. The muse is not the artist’s friend, because the artist is the tool of the muse.”

I may be embellishing his words a bit, but I have captured the essence of what he said. Few creative people are in love with their muse. Writers do not write because it’s fun to write—writers are driven to write. Painters and sculptors and others involved in the visual arts feel the same way. Musicians perform music, not as a hobby but as a compulsion. I have known many musicians. I have noticed that their feelings about people who dabble in music vary between amusement and scorn. If music is just a hobby—if music is not the only reason to go on living—then that amateur performer is not considered a true musician.

Every art is populated by starving artists. Only a few in each field reach the heights of fame and wealth. Most take on another job to support themselves while their hearts remain dedicated to their art. One of my musician friends made contact with the drummer who performed with Santana at Woodstock. The man still drums in small clubs for a pittance. With his immense talent and his minutes of fame, today he is a classic image of the starving artist.

Creative people often seem to have emotional problems of one kind or another. From severe mental illness to deep depression, artists seem prone to live unhappy lives. The suicide of an Ernest Hemingway or a Robin Williams reminds the rest of the world of the pain many artists carry inside themselves day and night. Who is to blame? Is it the fault of the muse that artists suffer? Can only those afflicted by pain supply the rest of the world with entertainment and with awe?

Soren Kierkegaard compared poets to the victims in ancient Sicily who were roasted to death in a hollow bull a king commanded an artist to devise. The screams of pain generated from within the bull by the victim sounded like music passing through the contraption. Reportedly, the designer of the Sicilian bull was the first victim to be tested in its flames.

Aristotle said something to the effect of “there is no great genius without a touch of madness.” He may have been thinking of Socrates, who was often considered to be mad. Socrates claimed to be inspired by a semi-divine spirit (the actual Greek word is “demon”) and would sometimes stop and stare into space, even in the middle of a conversation. Other wise people have compared the link between genius and madness to the link between roses and thorns.

Kurt Vonnegut, on the other hand, felt that creativity comes from being an outsider. He said that the mentally ill, along with Jews and homosexuals and other outsiders, are forced to see the world in a different way because they were made outsiders. When they describe the world which they see, they are discovered to be creative.

All this seems to say that the muse is a cruel mistress, a femme fatale, who uses the artist for her own ends without regard for the artist’s happiness, comfort, or even survival. Perhaps in a perfect world art can be produced painlessly, but we do not live in a perfect world. The burden of the artist, the driving force of the muse, is part of the reality of existence in this world. In the movie A League of Their Own, the manager is talking about baseball when he says, “Of course it’s not easy! If it were easy, everyone would do it.” What is true of baseball is true of art as well. J.

Kurt Vonnegut

My first paying job was at the public library. As a page, I was responsible for the fiction section; I had to reshelve the returned books and generally keep the section neat, as well as accomplishing other tasks as assigned. Being the page of the fiction section, I had hands-on knowledge of the most popular authors in our community.

One of the authors I noticed for his popularity was Kurt Vonnegut. Some libraries and bookstores pigeonhole Vonnegut into science fiction and fantasy, but where I worked he was shelved with general fiction. One of his most popular books my first summer at the library was Breakfast of Champions. It had a bright yellow cover as well as an interesting name, so I checked out the book, took it home, and read it. From that day on, I was a Kurt Vonnegut fan. Until his death in 2007, I confidently said that Kurt Vonnegut was my favorite living author. With the death of J. D. Salinger as well, I can no longer identify any writer as my favorite living author.

Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in Indiana. He attended Columbia University until he joined the army during World War II. After the war, he studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, but his academic work was not accepted by the department. Vonnegut became a technical writer for General Electric, working in Schenectady, New York. There he began experimenting with short stories, eventually completing his first novel, Player Piano.

Vonnegut’s style developed over his early writing. He became known for increasingly absurd plots, presented in clear crisp sentences. His most famous novel, Slaughterhouse Five, is based on his experiences as a prisoner of war held in Dresden, Germany, at the time that the city was firebombed by the Allies. His character, Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck in time,” drifting into the past and the future unpredictably, allowing Vonnegut to tell his story without having to move from event to event in chronological order.

In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut imagines what would happen if a scientist discovered a form of water that crystalizes at a higher temperature. (By comparison, consider the differences among coal, graphite, and diamonds, all of which are composed of carbon.) Clearly if this new form of water with its higher freezing temperature was introduced into the world, catastrophic results would follow. Therefore, the world’s only samples of “Ice-nine” must be kept securely… until they are not. Meanwhile, Vonnegut creates a Caribbean religion somewhat akin to Rastafarianism, which gives his narrator a platform to tell his story of earthly catastrophe.

Vonnegut considered himself a freethinker. He had little use for religion, and he considered churches to be artificial families, performing a role also accomplished by volunteer fire companies and Alcoholics Anonymous chapters. Vonnegut once rewrote the Christian Requiem service to communicate his own view of the meaning of life and death.

In one of his last novels, Timequake, Vonnegut again pictures a world rocked by catastrophe, but in this novel meaning is found by characters who say to one another, “You were sick, but now you are well again, and there is work to do.” Kurt Vonnegut is a character in Timequake and wanders through his own life. His alter ego, Kilgore Trout, is also a character in Timequake.

I wish I could have met Kurt Vonnegut. I wish we could have sat for hours and talked calmly about religion. I wish I could have told him how that message, “You were sick, but now you are well again, and there is work to do,” fits well with my understanding of the message of the Bible. But Kurt Vonnegut has died, and we will never have that conversation.

So it goes.

J.