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.