My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I am reader who writes. I am on a journey to becoming a writer who reads. As such, I adore books about reading and writing. Most disappoint. Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing does not disappoint.
Adapted from a series of lectures, Atwood offers a philosophical exploration of writing that is both insightful and practical. There are no tricks or gimmicks. Atwood reflects on what is happening when writer is writing without getting cute or wandering into the weeds.
Negotiating with the Dead looks at a writer’s sense of self; the divided nature of writer as both observer and participant; the question of writing as commerce or art; the artifice of the author’s persona; the weird relationship between writer, reader and book; and finally, the work of going down into the dark to bring up useful insights.
My borrowed copy of this book is a porcupine of tape flags — so many vibrant, useful quotes to capture and keep. This is my favorite:
“As for writing, most people secretly believe they themselves have a book in them, which they would write if they could only find the time. And there’s some truth to this notion. A lot of people do have a book in them — that is, they have had an experience that other people might want to read about. But this is not the same as ‘being a writer.’
“Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. The latter takes a good deal more stamina and persistence.”
I’ve been digging holes in the cemetery for more than 35 years. This book helps me understand what it takes to become a grave-digger.
I live just a little past the halfway mark of my town’s half marathon course, so this morning I spent some time at the top of my street encouraging runners. I had a few friends running but most were strangers.
One feels a bit awkward at first, standing on a street corner yelling at gasping, wheezing, pain-stricken strangers. They need air. They need water. They need rest. I’m serving out platitudes like “Keep it up,” “Keep it steady,” and “You’ve got this.”
One feels a bit like an asshole.
But here’s the thing: I’ve run that course. I know that by mile eight, your head is buzzing with doubt and worry. You hurt. You’re tired and, having done eight tough miles, you are wondering if you can do another five. You can, but you need to be reminded.
For a moment this morning I feel like I am on the wrong side of the cones. I want to be running in this race with them, but it feels good to be on this side, observing. These people are bothering to do difficult things they don’t strictly need to do. No one is making them. There’s no prize. They struggle, each in their own way, because struggle itself has value.
I admire each of them. The runners, the joggers, the walkers.
Many answer my support with a thumbs up, a wave or a quick thanks. At mile eight, every breath becomes precious. Any acknowledgment is a gift they give to me. And I quickly feel a lot less like an asshole.
I am noticing that thoughts are like viruses. They travel easily and quickly colonize a host. Good thoughts supplant bad thoughts.
Encouragement matters. Not always big, grand gestures. Sometimes just standing at a street corner, noticing someone’s effort, giving them a better thought than whatever is happening in their head at the moment.
Keep it up. Keep it steady.
You’ve got this.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Having adored Letters to a Young Poet, I reached for this slim volume wanting to be well-introduced to Rilke’s poems. This collection did not connect for me. There are moments in a few of the poems that grabbed me (“Autumn”; “The Panther”; “Faded”; “Piano Practice”; and “The Child”), but I found most to be indecipherable.
MacIntyre’s introductory essay and closing notes are dull and impenetrably obscure. I don’t read German but can’t help wondering if Rilke’s poems would connect with me more in a different translation or, also possible, if German Romanticism just isn’t my thing. I will be interested to read these five poems in different translations to find out.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four as a sophomore in high school. I understood the novel then as political allegory, a dystopian fantasy of a possible, but unlikely, future. Like many Cold War kids, Oceania seemed to me an alternative future West fallen into the authoritarian trap of the Soviet Union and Communist China. I understood that Orwell wasn’t making a hard prediction about my imminent future. I was ten years old in 1984. None of that stuff had actually happened.
I recently reread Nineteen Eighty-Four expecting to be newly terrified by the prescience of Orwell’s warnings. I was. Big Brother’s authoritarian regime maintains power through a combination of surveillance technologies, willfully impoverished discourse, an infinitely malleable sense of the historical record and a collective surrender of belief in historical truth.
I reread the book thinking the surveillance situation is much worse. Winston has to navigate the omnipresence of bidirectional telescreens on every wall. We carry our own personal surveillance machines in our pockets and dutifully report through the day via social media. The day after I finished reading, I saw my first ad for Facebook’s Portal, which has Muppets happily chatting away through the convenience of smart televisions converted into living room telescreens. Add Siri and Alexa. What can go wrong?
Orwell might not have imagined emoji culture, the gradual transformation of written language into a hieroglyphic soup of images and gifs. If you can’t find a suitable GIF to express a reaction to the news of the day, is your reaction really worth expressing? The Ministry of Truth might admire the efficiency with which we are thinning the dictionary for ourselves.
Finally: history, which deserves its own essay. Impossible to ignore the constant stream of news releases and press statements issuing from the White House saying the President didn’t actually say the thing we all just heard him say. And the ever shifting sand of which countries are allies and which enemies. It is enough to know that we have always been at war and will always be at war. The details of how we are fighting and why change quickly. Who can keep up?
Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book written to unsettle. It does. Most unsettling, in my latest read is the ease with which people adapt to the new situation. Winston grew up in times like our own. He remembers different rules, different norms. He remembers he had a mother who loved him and a sister. He just can’t quite remember what happened to them. Society under Big Brother is a society organized to forget, to be mollified and directed. The privileged adapt most quickly because they have the most to gain.
And so, rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four in 2019, I am thinking less about surveillance tech and government misinformation campaigns and perpetual war. I am thinking about the Two Minute Hate, that purging parade of raw emotion that unites everyone in a blind, patriotic fever. The enemy changes during the rally and no one notices. No one cares. The core values we carry as baseline assumptions for how democratic society operates — social and family bonds, rule of law, civil discourse, the value of dissent — are lost in the span of one generation. It takes one generation raised with new rules, new norms and new language, to create a generation incapable of the habits of thought that make democracy possible. They haven’t actively rejected democratic society. They can no longer imagine it.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is worth a read if you haven’t read it recently. The first half is a little bit of slog. The second half is the stuff of nightmares. Read to be disturbed. Read to become distrustful. Not only of government but distrustful of ourselves.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A worthy successor to The Handmaid’s Tale. Before reading, I had assumed The Testaments would be a thin, exploitive cash grab designed to capitalize on the current popularity of the Hulu series and the dystopian zeitgeist. I was wrong. The Testaments is an unusual sequel in that it adds moral complexity and texture to the original work while standing proudly on its own. You don’t have to read The Handmaid’s Tale to enjoy The Testaments, but you definitely should.
The Testaments is essentially a caper story told from three perspectives, giving nuance to the way the reader understands Gilead. The novel also places Gilead into an international context, which was something I found myself wanting in the original story.
I waved my way through an occasional minor plot hole and, as with The Handmaid’s Tale, the story ends a bit too abruptly. These are minor gripes. The Testaments satisfies.
Atwood’s ability to tell big, philosophically challenging stories through the closely observed private lives of authentic characters is inspiring. Atwood never sacrifices the personal to reach the universal.
This sequel is as good as the first.
This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA
We did a yard sale last week. I despise the work of doing yard sales. I hate the weeks of gathering together all the unloved, unneeded, no longer useful things of your life into a pile for pricing. That sad, hateful pile is an exceptionally personal indictment of your own complicity in consumer capitalism run amok.
There is a part of you that will want to set fire to that pile of unnecessary stuff, freeing your soul and the souls of all you love from the reach of attachment. Instead, you will price that pile.
You will cut fluorescent folder labels down to the size of price tags and Sharpie each item’s true value onto that tag. The item’s true value has no relationship to what you likely originally paid for that item. The true value has no relationship to how excited you thought you were when you took that item off some store shelf and brought it home to fill space in your already too-crowded house. At this moment, sitting at the base of this gloomy mountain, the item’s true value becomes a tax on the imaginary person who is going to see this same item displayed on your front lawn and believe they too need such an item to fill space in their already too-crowded home.
You will write 25 cents on nearly 300 price tags. Occasionally adding helpful commentary like Works! Never Used! “Works” indicates that you cannot tell from the item itself if it actually serves a purpose. “Never Used” is its own damning confession that you have owned more things than you can actually use.
Once the tax is affixed to the items, you wait for the dread morning to arrive. You pass the time checking weather reports for Saturday morning and posting inventories to Facebook and Craigslist. The night before you realize you haven’t made signs so you do the arts and crafts project of painting signs that can be read through a passing car window at 40 miles per hour. If you are very fortunate, you will have a partner willing to do this part for you.
You will also need to visit your local credit union to withdraw some of the money you haven’t yet spent on stuff. You will ask for this money to be presented in an array of quarters, ones and fives. This money goes into the Special Box which must be protected at all times during the sale. You have never actually read an article about someone getting smashed in the head at a yard sale for a boxful of quarters and ones, but you are certain you have heard from somebody that it has happened.
When the morning arrives, you are not ready. You slept a bit later than you intended and, while it is still dark on your Saturday morning off from work, you won’t have enough time to sip your coffee and get the stuff outside before the presale warriors arrive one hour early to try and buy your best stuff at half its labelled value.
You will rush to get every table you own set up on your front lawn and the items merchandised for maximum appeal. You will try to position the tables as a kind of funnel, drawing guests toward the clothes rack at the back. You place a few large items at the front of the driveway to lure them in. The Rock Band Wii game (Works!) sits proudly roadside, tempting cruisers as they coast past that this sale is work parking for. It is the same principle as an ant trap.
This yard sale isn’t a trap. It has good stuff that you probably need. Or stuff that someone you know probably needs. Or stuff that you know you don’t need but remember once upon a time needing and now that you are here doesn’t it make good sense to buy it just in case you find yourself needing it again?
Even if you are happily married, you will argue with your spouse a bit while setting this all up. You will harbor uncharitable thoughts and feelings about them as they critique your merchandize skills. You will spend too much time trying to sort the tables into categorizes of use: housewares, toys, little kid stuff, outdated technologies. Your spouse will tell you just to get it out and on the tables. They are coming! They are coming!
And you look up to find it is true. They are coming. The hour is here. There is no escape. You are having a yard sale.
And then, a curious thing: you start not to mind so much. You welcome people to your home and invite them into conversation. You ask them if they are hunting anything in particular. Some are. Most are not. You talk to dozens of people you would never have the chance to meet or speak with in any other context and you are doing this in your own front yard.
Somehow, the morning starts to seem less awful. Someone who loves you brings you a breakfast sandwich and more coffee. You are talking to the busy, happy, productive early morning people and your front yard is now a kind of community. You met the sisters who live one town apart and yard sale every Saturday morning as a way to spend time together. You meet the guy who is remodeling his kitchen because he recently bought a house and his wife hates their new kitchen counters. You meet the hapless husband who walks around with his wife on FaceTime, showing her your wares and doing his best to sell her on them. You quickly realize he is desperate to please her, and she is not one to be easily pleased. You give him a deal on the framed, bathroom mirror because you imagine his wife will like it up close in person much more than on the phone’s tiny screen.
You spend twenty minutes talking to a retiree on a bicycle who lives five streets away. He recently moved south from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, where the winters are fierce but the trail riding is unmatched. He is 75 if he is a day and he rides 15 miles everyday. Like you, he bought his house for proximity to the bike trails. He lost three friends in separate horrific bicycling accidents, one of which he describes in great detail. It is a kind of therapy for him, and at the end, you both agree that he should continue riding no matter what tragic fate ultimately lies unseen up the road. You have to do the things you love or you will die before you are dead.
And now you are wondering why you don’t stop to have conversations like this every Saturday morning. How interesting these people, all of them and how lucky you are to get to meet them, if only for a few minutes at a time.
And now, like me, you may begin humming “The People in Your Neighborhood” from Sesame Street. You can be forgiven if you are, but try not to do this aloud. It makes the customers worry.
And now you are no longer having a yard sale. You are just talking to people in a place with your stuff. Occasionally, some take things and give you money. The morning passes quickly.
The coffee maker you bought three weeks ago at Walmart (Works! Used Twice!) sells to the cafeteria worker at the county jail. “Those fellas love their coffee.”
A kid buys the abstract print of a cow’s face. This hung briefly in your kitchen but you took it down because it ruined the pleasure of cooking and eating hamburgers. He will hang it in his bedroom. At yard sales, we do not judge.
You meet the hospital volunteer who tells you that whatever stuffed animals you don’t sell can be donated to the hospital to help with kids. You check your watch and know that you aren’t going to sell many of these creatures at this point and offer to bag them all up for her. She carries a lawn/leaf bag of stuffed animals to their new home.
At the end of the sale, you feel tired and grateful. The sale wasn’t as painful as you had feared and you got rid of a lot of stuff. Don’t bother calculating how much you and your spouse made per hour. You could have worked a part-time job at fast food for one weekend and made more. Some of your unneeded things found new homes. Some will be placed in actual use, at least for a while. You kept all if out of the landfill, for now, and will take the rest to various donation centers.
Not a bad day’s work.
You and your spouse are glad to have all of this over. You tell each other this was the last one, that you will never have another yard sale ever again. And that, if one of you suggests a sale in the future, you should remind each other of this solemn oath.
Now, you have a box full of dollars and there is still weekend ahead. The credit union doesn’t open until Monday so you can’t deposit the cash. You wonder if you will manage to navigate the next two days without blowing through that cash on stuff.
Consumer-based capitalism is an elegant system. There’s really no escape.
Today my team said goodbye to a colleague. I knew when we hired her that we wouldn’t keep her for years, but I had expected to work together longer than we did. She had only been with us for ten months, but that’s okay. In those ten months she improved several key work processes, unlocked a few stalled projects and started several productive conversations that have put us on a better path.
In my 19 year career, I’ve hired a lot of people onto our team. Finding great people is the part of my career of which I am most proud. Having chaired dozens of search committees, both large and small, I am invariably asked to consider if the person we are interviewing will stay for the next 20 or 30 years.
I don’t care.
When bringing new members onto our team, I am looking for two things:
- Does the candidate have skills or abilities to help us do something we aren’t currently able to do or do well?
- Does the candidate have the desire and ability to grow?
If the answer to both is yes, we have a match. Thirty years or thirty months doesn’t much matter. Finding someone who trusts you enough to share their talents, their time and their heart changes the game. Be a careful custodian of that trust. Build them up. Develop their talent. And when it is time for them to leave, celebrate.
I am proud of the team I serve. I am also proud of those who have left our team to build different dreams.
Thirty years? That’s the wrong question.
Will they help us grow?
I spent today in meetings. Day-long meetings are generally awful, but today I was with my fellow academic library deans and directors from across the state college system. I always look forward to these meetings. It is a rare chance to gather with peers who do the same work in the same system with the same goals under the same constraints. We share. We commiserate. We celebrate. We solve problems.
After 13 years as a higher ed administrator, I have worked with a lot of different people. Many have moved on to other things. Some have retired. A few died. At 45 years old, I am now the third longest-serving administrator in our group of 19 academic library directors. Today someone felt compelled to suggest that I have accrued something that passes for wisdom over those 13 years. I’m not sure this is true. I do think a lot and talk a lot. Someone who thinks and talks as much I do is bound to occasionally say things that feel useful.
Each time my friends and I are together, we reminisce about the work we’ve done, the challenges we’ve faced, the opportunities we developed, the absurdities we have endured. In taking stock I realize that the things of which I am most proud are not the things that I myself have accomplished. I am most proud of things I have helped others accomplish. Things I have helped others recognize to be possible.
Being the boss is hard. If you do it well, it is probably lonely. If you care about the work you do and the people with whom you do that work, you will never feel like you are doing enough. You will always be dissatisfied with your response to a need, your inability to provide a resource, your misunderstanding of a situation.
Be kind to yourself. Take inventory of your greatest successes. You are an effective leader if:
- You have people who trust you to tell them the truth.
- You have people who ask you to listen when they are struggling.
- You have people who openly share their craziest ideas because they want someone to be excited with them.
- You have people who thank you for who you are and how you work and how you help them work.
This is how a career is measured. Everything beyond this is just certificates in scrapbooks, plaques on walls and lines on the resume.
My wife, daughter and I recently returned from an 8 day, 1941 mile road trip vacation. We roller-coastered at HersheyPark, Pennsylvania and explored Niagra Falls, Ontario from above, below, behind and beside. We ate over-priced sandwiches at the top of Toronto’s CN Tower. We snapped hundreds of photos and bought the tee-shirts, hoodies and other souvenirs necessary to commemorate our journey.
It was a terrific trip. We saw beautiful places, ate delicious food and had interesting adventures together.
My wife has noticed that I look my most relaxed, happy self in photos taken while traveling. She isn’t wrong. The change of scenery sharpens my senses and wakes me up.
This was my family’s first big road trip vacation. We usually go directly to a place (the beach) where being at the locale is the point. Our road trip vacation was different. More than usual, I enjoyed the surprise of the people I met along the way as much as I enjoyed being in the places where I met them.
The Apostolic church congregation in their Sunday white suits and dresses holding their annual conference in the HersheyPark hotel. The manager at the upstate New York gas station Subway who appreciated my twelve year old daughter’s affinity for hot tea. The Subway sandwich artiste who verified twice that when we ordered soda we actually wanted pop. The waitress at Niagra hotel who encouraged me to take my time eating breakfast because she was too tired to set another table after I left. The waitress at Dad’s Diner in Niagra who works all spring, summer and fall to save up enough money to winter in Cuba.
And our Toronto evening cab driver who was a resettled refugee from Afghanistan. He grew up under the Taliban, escaped to Germany and finally managed to resettle with his family in Canada. And he doesn’t want to get political but who can see how or when this endless war will end?
Every language of the world was spoken in the lobby of our Toronto hotel and every manner of dress represented. The night clerk was Japanese. The morning clerk Korean. The friendliest, most helpful concierege South African.
All along the trip everyone was please and thank you at the hotel elevators and have a nice night and take care.
There were some crazies, too. The cursing guy in the Toronto subway station who repeatedly kicked the passing train as it sped by. He was quickly hauled off by the police. The drunk outside the Chinatown gift shop who kept grabbing the crutches of his hobbled companion to start a fight and then, once the fight was well-started, wrapping this friend in a huge embrace as apology. Repeat this cycle five times.
Throughout the clean, friendly, well-ordered city, the destitute, the homeless, the friendless. My daughter wanting to cross every busy street and give money to every homeless man or woman who had a dog. Me explaining in my Father Knows Best voice that you can’t help everybody by giving them money and you certainly can’t put yourself at danger crossing busy streets and some of these people are definitely nice pet owners who need help but some just have the dog as a way to get your attention. And then myself, hypocritically crossing those same busy streets to admire a local musician play the guitar or flute or Chinese fiddle and dropping money into their open instrument case.
These people, all of them, made our family road trip special. And my heart is very full remembering the few minutes shared with each. They will not remember me. In a few weeks, I will not remember them well. And yet, they matter because my twelve year old daughter will remember something very important. As we were leaving Toronto for the 14 hour return drive home, she said, “You know. People are a lot nicer than I expected. And polite. And friendly.”
“In Canada?” I asked.
“Yeah, but actually everywhere.”
She isn’t wrong.