I know, Americans hardly ever read poetry anymore, and they certainly don’t read narrative poetry – poetry that tells a story.
But we listen to plenty of country music that tells a story, and in fact most pop music at least implies a story. So we aren’t complete strangers to the idea of receiving a story in rhymed and metered verse. It just needs guitars.
Well, turn on some guitar instrumentals if you must, but I think most readers would enjoy The Ballad of Jesús Ortiz, by Dana Gioia. For one thing, it’s not very long – we’re not talking about the commitment it takes to read The Iliad or Paradise Lost.
The story is simple and moving. Unlike most of what passes for poetry today, it isn’t about the poet – either what the poet feels or how cleverly the poet writes. Gioia is simply recounting a true story of one of his great-grandparents, a Mexican cowboy who lived and died on the high plains of the American frontier.
Dana Gioia is an interesting guy – a poet who made a living as a businessman until he was appointed by President George W. Bush as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, where he did splendid work.
After leaving that office, he returned to his civilian life and published the poetry he had written during his time at the NEA; he had declined to offer his poetry for publication while in office because the NEA funds so many arts organizations and publishers that it would have been hard to avoid the appearance that his work was getting published because he held everybody’s purse strings.
In 2015 Gioia [pronounced JOY-ah] was appointed State Poet Laureate of California by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Let’s see … appointed by George W. Bush and Jerry Brown. Can we conclude that his work transcends political ideology?
The best news about this moving mini-epic poem is that, while it exists as a booklet from Providence Press in Ojai, California, it was also published in full in the LA Review of Books,
Since Gioia is a poet of grace and wisdom, his verse in these ballad stanzas is admirable; but you’ll want to read this poem for the moving story it tells. Somewhat closer to the real Wild West than the average romanticized John Wayne movie.
My big sister recently alerted me to the existence of a series of books put together by Shaun Usher: Letters of Note, Letters of Note II, and Lists of Note.
Most of the letters and lists are to or from famous people, but many aren’t, and they’re all fascinating, not just because they deal with important matters, because of what they reveal about character and culture.
For instance, here’s a list that Albert Einstein gave to his wife of 11 years, Mileva. It was clear to both of them that there was no romantic love left between them, but they both wanted to stay together for the sake of the children.
Einstein gave her a list of the conditions she would have to accept in order for them to continue to live together:
- You will make sure
- that my clothes and laundry are kept in good order,
- that I will receive my three meals regularly in my room.
- that my bedroom and study are kept neat, and especially that my desk is left for my use only.
- You will renounce all personal relations with me insofar as they are not completely necessary for social reasons. Specifically, you will forgo
- my sitting at home with you;
- my going out or traveling with you.
- You will obey the following points in your relations with me:
- you will not expect any intimacy from me, nor will you reproach me in any way;
- you will stop talking to me if I request it;
- you will leave my bedroom or study immediately without protest if I request it.
- You will undertake not to belittle me in front of our children, either through words or behavior.
Wow. It sounds like an entire season’s worth of sitcom plots.
Naturally, this list was originally written in German, and I corrected the translation because in the book, “forego” (precede) was written where “forgo” (do without) was clearly intended.
Now, we all agree that Einstein was a very clever man, and the work he did involved elaborate and careful thought experiments. There were many times when he needed to be left undisturbed, so he could concentrate on what he was thinking.
Nevertheless, this list is about as good an example as I’ve ever seen of one person explaining to another just how much she irritates him.
For the sake of the children, she accepted the list and the marriage continued … for a few months, when she took the children and left. Then he could have all the undisturbed time he wanted. He’d have to get a housekeeper and cook for the rest.
That’s just one of the lists. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad. And yet I understood some of the needs that Einstein felt.
I know that I sometimes hurt my children’s feelings when I was in the midst of writing a complicated scene and I heard one of them trudge up the stairs to my attic office and meekly ask, “Is it all right to interrupt you?”
And because I’m not always kind, I would often reply, “Apparently so,” or, “That very question is an interruption,” and would occasionally continue, “Is the house on fire? Is someone bleeding? Does someone need to go to the emergency room? Then I would like to continue concentrating on the work that makes the house payments.”
Yeah. I was that father.
But I made it a point not to respond that way if I was simply being an introvert playing a computer game. I was often interruptible. But then, I was not Einstein, and the work I did was not going to change the world.
Still, I understand Einstein’s yearning not to be interrupted, and not to be made to feel guilty or get into an argument about expecting not to be interrupted, and not to be demeaned in front of the children for expecting to be able to do his work without interruption.
But this list, by its very existence, made it pretty clear that as far as Einstein was concerned, this marriage was over.
They got legally divorced a few years after she left him, and later he did marry again. Mileva did not marry again, but after receiving this list, I can’t imagine that the concept of “husband” held any particular allure for her.
In Letters of Note, I particularly loved Flannery O’Connor’s letter to a professor of English in 1961. It begins:
“The interpretation of your ninety students and three teachers is fantastic and about as far from my intentions as it could get to be. If it were a legitimate interpretation, the story would be little more than a trick and its interest would be simply for abnormal psychology. I am not interested in abnormal psychology.”
She goes on for two paragraphs about the particular story, explaining, essentially, that the story is about the human beings in it and their relationships.
Then she concludes with these two paragraphs:
“The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.
“My tone is not meant to be obnoxious. I am in a state of shock.”
If I weren’t so lazy, I would have leapt to my feet and given this letter a standing ovation.
Those last two paragraphs are an accurate assessment of what’s wrong with the way most literature is taught in most classrooms, and it explains why, under such tutelage, so many American students “never learn to enjoy fiction.”
The letters are about every subject you can imagine. For instance, a child of Chinese immigrants asks why she, as a native speaker of English, can’t be admitted into the regular school near her home and must attend a school for Chinese students far away.
And then there’s a memo that a script editor sent to the head of Comedy and Light Entertainment at the BBC in 1974, about a script submitted by John Cleese and his then wife, Connie Booth.
“I’m afraid I thought this one as dire as its title.
“It’s a kind of ‘Prince of Denmark’ of the hotel world. A collection of cliches and stock characters which I can’t see being anything but a disaster.”
Fortunately, John Cleese was able to keep the project alive despite this memo; if he hadn’t, we would have missed out on the classic television comedy Fawlty Towers.
Come on, it’s fun to read letters written before people knew how things would turn out.
And there are letters with such amazing stories that they made me gasp. For instance, in 1975, a Vietnamese pilot, with his family in a small plane, approached the US carrier Midway and circled it. He couldn’t enter into radio contact, so he dropped handwritten notes onto the carrier’s deck. Most blew away, but one was retrieved and read.
He was asking the carrier to clear some deck space so he could land his Cessna and save his family. I was relieved and proud that the ship’s captain, Larry Chambers, “immediately ordered all available crew to push as many UH-1 Huey helicopters off the deck and into the ocean as necessary, rather than simply move them to one side, in order to give Buang-Ly and his family space in which to touch down.”
Buang-Ly landed the Cessna perfectly, without a tailhook to latch on and slow him down. The crew surrounding his narrow landing lane applauded. They knew that this was nearly an aviation miracle.
Since the books have no coherent theme or plot, they are best read in small installments, letting each letter and its attached story make its own impression. I only wish that the explanatory stories were not in such tiny type, because it was hard to hold such big heavy books close to my eyes for as long as I wanted to keep reading.
In most cases, the original letter is reproduced on the page, in the original handwriting. So you don’t have to wonder if the whole thing was made up. When I saw that note scrawled by Buang-Ly as his plane was running out of fuel, it made the whole thing feel more intense and real to me.
However many years Shaun Usher has devoted to these volumes and their sequels, I cast my vote: It was worth it. Good job!
Economist Daniel H. Pink has written a slim book that I think is valuable reading for everybody: When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.
The book begins by asserting that if the captain of the Lusitania had not made several key mistakes in bringing the ship into port, it might not have been sunk. Instead, his bad choices made the ship a sitting duck, and so the torpedoes brought it down.
Pink suggests that part of the reason for a normally good captain to perform so badly was that he was making these decision in the afternoon. In the morning, he probably would have made much better choices.
And Pink has the data to prove that this explanation is at least plausible. People really do have predictable rhythms based on the time of day, and those rhythms lead to good and bad performance.
For instance, in one corporation that has quarterly teleconferences with key investors and analysts, the CEO knew that if the meeting takes place in the morning, the presenters do a much better job of expressing optimism and favorable spin, which materially affects the stock price in the next week.
Afternoon meetings have the opposite effect – stock prices take a hit during the following week, because the movers and shakers come away from the meeting with a much more negative impression.
This is true across a sampling of many corporations, so that it is definitely a real thing. Now, Pink assures us that the stock prices usually correct to their “real” value after that first week – but it does suggest that if you’re buying a stock within that week after the quarterly meeting, you should find out whether the meeting was in the morning or afternoon.
I don’t buy stocks, and I’m not piloting a ship during submarine warfare, but Pink goes on to explain many other effects of time-of-day on our moods and behavior.
He takes into account the well-known fact that some people are larks ╨ morning people ╨ and others, like me, are owls – we only come alive in the evening.
Often, partly thanks to Ben Franklin’s “Early to bed, early to rise” adage, we think that there’s a moral quality involved in this. Good people get up and get going, and only sluggards wake up groggy and grouchy if they bother to wake up before noon. (Lyric from The Sound of Music: “When you wake up – Wake up! It’s healthy!”)
But Pink makes it clear that he’s not taking sides – but that both personalities can benefit from managing their lives to work well with their natural schedules.
It isn’t just time of day, either. Whenever we are at a perceived transition time – beginning of the year, of the month, of the week – our decisions and performance are affected by what we do at those times.
For instance, if you’re trying to get people to change their behavior in beneficial ways, the day to do it is a start-up day, like Monday. “If you’re trying to encourage people to eat healthier, a campaign calling for Meatless Mondays will be far more effective than one advocating Vegan Thursdays.”
Pink offers real suggestions about how to cope with that afternoon slump that most people experience. He suggests quick naps.
Now, he himself confesses that he always hated the idea of naps because after sleeping an hour and a half, he would wake up sluggish rather than refreshed.
His research told him that an hour and a half of sleep is not helpful as a pick-me-up in mid-afternoon.
Instead, you don’t want to sleep past 20 minutes. Often 10 will do. Then when you wake up, you’re much more refreshed and ready to return to work.
I’m not a coffee drinker and I generally avoid caffeine, but he offers a strategy for how to take a quick nap. First, coffee does not perk you up until 20 minutes after you drink it.
So he suggests you drink a cup of coffee and then take your quick nap. Twenty minutes after you lie down, the caffeine kicks in and wakes you up and you get a far bigger boost than the coffee alone would have given you.
Sans caffeine, I can attest to the efficacy of that quick nap. I used to be able to drive hours on end without getting sleepy, but in the past decade I’ve begun to find myself getting drowsy after only a few hours of driving – especially in the afternoon.
I used to try to invigorate myself to stay awake – doing isometric exercises with the steering wheel, singing, opening the window or even stopping the car and getting out and walking around for a while.
But in the past few years, I’ve been doing just what Pink suggests, minus the coffee. When I get drowsy – or, more terrifyingly, wake up while driving – I immediately find a place where I can pull the car out of traffic, and then lock the doors, take off my glasses, tilt my seat back, close my eyes and sleep.
I leave the radio or audiobook running. Yes, I sometimes doze through an important plot point, and sometimes the audiobook actually keeps me from sleeping, but my eyes are closed, I’m not driving or, really, doing anything, and it counts as a nap. (Or at least as recess.)
After only 15 or 20 minutes I wake up, pull my seat forward and resume driving. (Oh, and yes, I do put my glasses back on.)
I’ve never had to do that twice on the same trip.
Pushing on through a long task doesn’t work for me – it just increases my danger of dozing off while driving. But Pink is right about those quick naps – they make all the difference in the world.
The book has a lot of good ideas, based on research and good thinking.
When is a short book, and because Pink is a clear writer, you can read it all at once – or in a few short installments – and then start finding ways to use the things he teaches.
One of my favorite sections was when he discussed the research on recess in elementary school. The facts are solid: Children who have a couple of recess periods during the day, in which they can choose their own activities instead of fulfilling tasks set by adults, do a much better job of learning.
Yet a lot of schools are eliminating recess. Not because they hate children, or not just because they hate children, but also because way more school injuries happen during recess than any other time. It’s about risk management!
But if you damp children’s learning by eliminating recess, then why not just send them home earlier? Just like the incredible time-waster and family-wrecker called homework, having no recess erodes the ability of children to learn. If schools would keep recess and eliminate homework, learning and happiness would sharply increase.
I loved the way the book ends – explaining how group activities with a clear boss (either a person or a firm external standard everybody lives up to) allows us to tap into the power of synchronous group behavior.
Right now, we seem only to get the negatives – the groupthink that stupefies both the Right and the Left in America today. But as human beings we all – introverts included – need to have regular experiences of synchronous activity.
Pink began discussing this in relation to singers in choirs and choruses. Research has found that practicing with a choir gives exactly the same “high” as the actual performance.
It makes me feel happier about being a conductor of congregational singing in church – it really does make people feel better to sing together, whether they sing well or not.
Dance, yoga, running together (not competitively) and other synchronous activities give the same kind of benefit – the most powerful being boat-rowing.
When you row in perfect synchrony with the rest of the rowing crew, with someone calling the beats, it not only gives you the elation of synchronous activity with other people, but it also burns more calories per minute and provides more of a full-body workout than a full-court basketball game.
But singing is good enough for me. Last time I was in a canoe I spilled, hit the icy river water and despite my life jacket felt raw panic for the first time in my life. Not interested in going out on the water with oars again.
Look, not every suggestion Pink makes in When will be practical for you. But I bet that many or even most of the things he points out will change your attitude and maybe even your behavior. Give it a try.
I just made a quick trip to San Diego to join in the celebration of the 25th anniversary of Mysterious Galaxy, one of the few surviving specialty genre bookstores. They carry a full, deep range of mystery, sci-fi and fantasy books.
Online book-buying really isn’t a replacement for stores like this, where bookstore employees know their stock and can guide you to books you’re likely to enjoy.
Amazon tries, but there’s nothing like a face-to-face conversation with a fellow book-lover. The folks at Mysterious Galaxy have guided me to some of my now-favorite authors in the mystery genre and even in sci-fi and fantasy.
Somehow, Mysterious Galaxy has survived for a quarter of a century, and they seem to be going strong, partly because they have cultivated the loyalty of a large clientele of committed readers. That’s the group it was my privilege to talk and read to last Saturday.
But it’s too late for you to attend that event, and most of my readers aren’t going to San Diego anytime soon – though if you do go to ComicCon this summer, take the time to get away from the mob and drive up to Mysterious Galaxy.
Here’s the thing about San Diego: It has the most pleasant climate in the continental United States. (Nothing at our northern latitudes can compete with Hawaii, so I’m leaving that out of this assessment.)
San Diego is farther south than Greensboro, but because of the Alaska current running along the coast, it is way cooler all summer. I mean, I was there in mid-May, at a time when Greensboro afternoon temperatures were in the 80s. I ate outdoors in the late afternoon in San Diego and found myself wishing I had a sweater.
During the winter, though, San Diego is never cold enough for snow, except in the nearby mountains. And even though the real desert is over the mountains and way inland, the humidity stays pretty low all year – but not low enough to dry you out.
Climate-wise, it’s pretty much the best place in America you could live or visit.
Now, that doesn’t take away from the things we enjoy about other pleasure spots. California beaches are steep and the water is icy cold most of the year – if I want a beach vacation, the Carolina coast, North and South, is far more pleasurable.
And if you want to vacation in the woods, San Diego ain’t the place.
But if you‘re planning a family reunion, for instance, I can’t imagine a better place than San Diego. Plenty of touristy things to do, great shopping, a lovely downtown, ocean and mountains, one of the best zoos in the world, and … that climate.
My wife and I are planning a week with two of our grandchildren – and, yes, their lovely parents, one of whom we raised and the other we wish we could claim credit for – in San Diego. We’re going to stay downtown because there’s so much within walking distance, including a lot of excellent restaurants.
(And all of San Diego is incredibly close to the airport, which is practically downtown.)
The place I stayed on this quick visit was the Hilton San Diego Resort & Spa at Mission Bay (http://www.sandiegohilton.com/contact.aspx).
This one really is right on the ocean (well, a bay) with a sandy beach. But it’s not walking distance from downtown, which can be a disadvantage. You have to have a car or call for a Lyft in order to eat anywhere but at the hotel restaurant.
I didn’t have time to take advantage of all the spa amenities, but I found myself wishing, even on a cool afternoon, that I had brought a swimsuit, because it has one of the nicest pools and patios I’ve ever seen.
What I did get to enjoy was the hotel restaurant, Acqua California Bistro, which does an excellent job of preparing wonderful food from familiar ingredients. My first meal at Acqua was clam chowder followed by a swordfish entree. My other meal was a fabulous beet salad followed by slow-cooked (i.e., well-done) rib meat.
Good food is what you expect at midrange and high-end restaurants in California’s big cities. But what you don’t always get is the extraordinary level of service I received.
Waiters usually don’t love waiting on single diners, `because you have to take as many trips to the table but the price, and therefore the tip, is smaller. But I never got a sense of reluctance from the excellent waiter who served me both nights. He was gracious and attentive, but never intrusive. The backservers were on top of everything. Whatever changes I needed in any course my waiter saw to, and everything was exactly as I asked for it.
Since hotel restaurants across the country are almost always a second-tier choice at best (not true in Paris, but … that’s Paris, for Pete’s sake). Acqua, however, was good enough that it might well be worth the drive even if you’re staying somewhere else.
I saw groups of people gathered in comfy chairs around a patio firepit, engaged in happy conversation in the cool evening air. There was a bulletin board and a sign listing all the activities for children that the hotel was sponsoring – it was an amazing list, and some of the items on it I might have enjoyed as a child.
As long as I’m reviewing the hotel, let me comment that the room was lovely, with a step-out patio from the sunken sitting area, a comfortable bed, perfect climate control and a bathroom that wasn’t trying to kill me.
That is, not only did the bathtub have a hand-grip for getting in and out, and three separate places to put soap and shampoo, but also it had friction strips on the floor of the tub and a rubber bathmat that was available if the tub was still too slippery for me to feel safe.
This is a big deal for old people like me, because my reaction time is much slower these days, so if I slip on the tub floor while taking a shower, I’m much less likely to be able to react in time to keep myself from falling. Not a worry in that well-designed bathroom.
So look, if you’re planning a family trip or a location wedding or a reunion or just a weekend getaway, you should put San Diego – and perhaps the Mission Bay Hilton – on your list of candidate locations. It’s a good place to sleep, to eat, and just to hang out.