Let Me Eat Cake

Most historians agree that Queen Marie Antoinette, who had the bad luck to marry King Louis XVI, did not say, when asked about the plight of France’s starving underclass, “Let them eat cake.”

It was one more canard, a blob of mud lobbed at a royal family that, like all families, as Queen Eleanor says in the play The Lion in Winter, had its “ups and downs.” But some great lies stay in our collective imagination far longer than complicated truths. Unlike his louche grandfather, Louis XV, this King was interested in science and mechanical engineering. He was a proud disciple of Enlightenment thinkers, who believed that the scientific method, and not religious interpretation, was the ultimate arbitrator of reality. He also wanted to be a fair, responsive king to his subjects.

Plump and somewhat socially awkward, he married a knock-out of a queen who became an aristocratic style setter–until she and her family became a target of anti-monarchist rage that, ironically, owed some of its sensibility to Enlightenment ideals, as translated and transplanted by America’s most famous propagandist, Thomas Paine. Louis and his queen were not the first royals to lose their heads (Britain did it first to Charles I, though they spared his queen, Henrietta Maria). But their reputation as callous swells who lived high while their subjects starved, has lived on. When we imagine a person carelessly indulging in luxury, Marie Antoinette’s name comes up.

What is it about refined pleasure that riles us up so? As much as we adore the luxe life, and watch helplessly as so many of our leaders–elected, appointed or merely powerful–flaunt their wealth–we also condemn it as being somehow not quite what God, justice or fairness, would permit. It does us no good to know that the famous line from the Declaration of Independence that ensures our God-given rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was originally written “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.” A last-minute edit changed so much then, as now.

It is possible to trace some of our conflicting attitudes about pleasure back to a philosophical tug-of-war between two great ancient schools of thought: Stoicism and Epicureanism. The first is named for the Athenian Stoa, a long porch that covered a marketplace, where Zeno and other founding philosophers preached (you can visit a reconstructed version that is located close to the original). The second derives from a Fourth Century Greek who was called Epicurus (the name means good friend), who offered his take on the life-well-lived in an Athenian school he called The Garden.

Both philosophies tried to tackle the fear of death. Both philosophies agreed that our physical bodies stop, grow cold and, like any other living thing, begin to turn into something else. While it may be nice to believe in an afterlife as described in the ancient texts, we really can’t be sure what awaits us.

It may be nicer, still, to hope that prayer and sacrifice  to a god will quiet a storm, banish your illness and make good things happen. But, if you read Homer (and the ancient Greeks did, to the point of memorizing him, as some of us have memorized parts of the Bible), you know that the gods quarrel among themselves, act capriciously with mortals and frequently do things that make people miserable.

So it makes sense to make the best of the life we have, right now. How would we do that? Both philosophies suggested a goal of a peaceful, respectful existence with friends and family. We should face danger and uncertainty with a calm composure when we fight an enemy, comfort a sick child, or find our home destroyed by an earthquake.

They divide on the answer of how you achieve that calm. The Stoics say you should interrogate your emotions, your opinions and your passions. The rational result of his examination is that you may not determine when you die, you cannot influence the stock market, you’ll have to let a disease may have to run its course, you can’t force your neighbor’s dog to stop yapping, you’ll be overwhelmed momentarily from the pain from an injury or a loss, but, in theory and in practice, you can control yourself. It may not be easy, and you may fly off the handle every once in a while, but we can agree that self-discipline brings an understanding of what tends to push your buttons. This understanding can help you keep your cool when the unexpected occurs, and when death pays a visit.

The Epicureans want a similar calm, but they find the path is in a kind of stillness that derives from the absence of pain. This may have some similarity to forms of mystical meditation. It may also derive from the satisfaction of having your immediate desires met in a way that is fair, ethical and moral.

If life is an uncertain, frequently chaotic series of events beyond your control, the astute Epicureans may put themselves in situations where they are at peace. Not only is it permissible to pursue pleasure, but, when done in moderation (in a manner that, in theory and in practice, does not harm or diminish the pleasure of those you are with), the happiness that derives from pleasure can help you keep your cool when the unexpected occurs or death pays a visit.

To put it bluntly, if you don’t enjoy your life, who will?

These philosophies are much more complicated than this, and, like any system of thought, they are riddled with paradoxes and ethical problems. Among the greatest difficulties with Stoicism is the Freudian concern about repression: are so many of our psychological obstacles due to the beast in all of us trying to work its way out? Many social situations presume a loosening of control: we are expected to grieve at funerals, laugh at a funny joke and savor the passion of love, even if, like so many characters in Shakespearean comedies, passion turns us into a fool. Better to be a fool for love than to let love’s gifts go to someone else.

And let us not forget that some of our greatest artistic and creative moments happen when we suspend our sense of control, forget about who we think we are, and return to a child-like state of play. This would not have troubled the Romans, who put most of their creative, imaginative work in the hands of freedmen and slaves. The Emperor Nero thought he was an artist, and was roundly ridiculed for it.

Like Marie Antoinette, Epicureans have been tarred by history. The word is frequently used as a synonym for overindulgence, sensuality, gluttony and–most significantly in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, a turning away from God to embrace the “idolatry” of the sensual quick fix. The God of the New and Old Testaments has left us with a stack of laws, commandments and restrictions, and, though one of my college religion professors pointed out that there are far more positive references in the Bible to the consumption of alcohol than negative, the Western world’s predominant faith holds that a kind of stoicism is better when around the fermented grape, than the ecstatic hedonism of the Dionysian cults that were popular among educated, aristocratic female Greeks and Romans.

Islam bans alcohol completely. You just can’t have it. Not once. Not ever.

We all know those who indulge themselves so regularly that they consider it not just a privilege, but a right. The Emperor Domitian expelled the Stoics from Rome (especially those senators who criticized him) in the early Second Century AD. Another historical irony is that among the most important advocates of Stoicism is one of Domitian’s predecessors, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations–a book he wrote for himself with no intention of publication–remains among the “best sellers” of classical literature.

Marcus Aurelius tried to live as simply as possible. He married one woman, had children (who died before they could succeed him, alas) and didn’t indulge in any of the orgiastic excesses that some Roman Emperors–Caligula, Nero and Marcus Aurelius’s son and successor Commodus–are famous for. He practiced tolerance of others but either ignored, or condoned the early imperial custom of persecuting Christians.

Another great exemplar of Stoicism was the Roman slave Epictetus. He lived a little earlier than Marcus Aurelius. Philosophy teachers love to point out the coincidence that the two greatest Stoics of late antiquity were at the opposite ends of the economic scale. Epictetus was born with nothing, may have been maimed by his owner, and died with nothing but his thought and the fame it brought him. Marcus Aurelius was born into an aristocratic family, singled out for greatness by the Emperor Hadrian and adopted into a into the imperial line of succession. When he assumed the purple at a time when Rome was at the peak of its imperial power. He could have anything he wanted and do just about anything he wanted, but he chose to live simply, practice self control, and jot down his thoughts about the life-well-lived in a notebook.

It is Epictetus who motivates this writing. Among what little of his thought survives is a quotation: “If I must die today, then I will die. If I am not to die immediately, let me have lunch.”

There is more to this than the sudden, comical plunge from the solemn to the mundane.  This is one more example of a reasonable attitude toward the fear of death: as long as my end is not imminent, I might as well go on with the necessities of living. The Romans ate one big meal of the day, at noon (with plenty of opportunities for snacks and special feast meals), so it is possible that Epictetus’s lunch was the only food he would have. It is likely that the fare was plain.

And yet, I couldn’t help but think about the leftover birthday cake sitting in the refrigerator. My wife and I have birthdays four days apart, and, after all the boxes, gift wrap and packing material had been taken to the curb for the garbage collectors, the cake remained in the cool darkness, waiting.

The cake had come from a baker known for the purity of ingredients and the beauty of display. It would have been eaten sooner if my sister-in-law had not baked a cake for us.

My wife had some of the bakery cake last night, and dismissed it with an almost Stoical chill: It was mostly buttercream, she said, in a tone that implied such things were not to be taken seriously. When she asked later if I wanted a slice, I invoked my self-control and replied that it might be better to leave the cake where it was.

But, this morning, when delving through the refrigerator to make breakfast, I saw the cake box. I made a very healthy oatmeal and banana porridge (no sugar, cream or butter added–just oats, water and two ripe bananas). We had low-fat milk in our coffee.

I had no fear of death when lunch time came around. I opened the refrigerator, imagining a salad when, lo and behold…

It wasn’t just buttercream. It was a smooth, coffee-scented celebration of…

I used to be a restaurant critic and, though I know the lingo, I’d rather not use it now. Suffice to say,

If I am not to die immediately, let me have a lunch of cake, every once in a while, for no other reason than how good cake tastes.







When the Machine Eats Your Stuff

I first learned about word processing at a local newspaper, where, every day or so, some overcaffeinated future Pulitzer winner would push his or her chair back, pound the innocuous beige plastic of a terminal (this was before slim, flat-screen single computers could do it all) and yell, “NO! NO!”

What had previously lived on a green screen with yellow letters had vanished forever, and the response from human beings was not good. Representatives of the species howled, cursed, kicked inanimate objects (metal trash cans were a favorite of the assistant editorial page editor) and swore that no amount of new technology could replace the typewriter. After about two minutes, one of the people would saunter in from their severely air conditioned lair–casually, blissfully, as if he just came out of a yoga class and wait strategically until the profanity ebbed and say, “Next time, hit the save button.”

Contemporary word processors are supposed to save what you do automatically. You find the latest version, pull it up and see that it’s all there EXCEPT for the great string of prose that you had labored upon for the last hour because, last night, before going to bed, you had just read a schpritz from one of those fancy prose stylists and you wanted to show the world that you can swim with the big fishes. That’s gone. Forever.

I’ve been through this so many times now and I no longer go quite so crazy. Yesterday when a post for this blog vanished a few seconds after I had finished it (and was not saved, for reasons I’ll never know), I sighed wistfully, remembering so many piles of text that had similarly vaporized, and how the only practical response is “it wasn’t meant to be.”

From a philosophical point of view, that’s a rather weak rationalization. It presumes that things happen for reasons, that some outside, presumably supernatural force is in charge, this force only wants good things for everybody (despite the observance that what happens you may not be so good for me, and vice versa) and that what could have been a mere goof, or a mistakenly tapped key, or, a causally causal connection that Charles Dickens’ Scrooge would explain as “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato,” was, in truth, a divinely sanctioned act whose ultimate benefit may not be immediately apparent but would, in time, present itself as a greater good.

Until then, it’s best to do something different and, maybe, when emotions return to the midpoint, you can attempt to repeat what you know you cannot duplicate fully. Or not.

I think life is more about chances than choices. A chance for a writer starts with that scary thing: a blank page–digital or actual. You also need something that will make a mark on that page that, you hope, will remain consistent for a while. I say this because I have had too many broken pencil points (and no sharpener anywhere), dry pens, and typewriters that break in ways that can’t be fixed with a ribbon change or a bent paperclip.

Finally, you must recognize the time you have to fill the page. That usually means you must endure distraction, an inspiration that isn’t fully understood, an urge to do research that you must stifle or you’ll find out all these cool facts about delft china or plant-based toxins common to Central America without writing the scene that uses them, and forget about checking e-mail, letting your social media pals know you’re about to craft the greatest work of art the world will ever know, or going to the kitchen and opening the fridge.

You just have to start, knowing that you’re not ready, the writing conditions could be better, you may not be feeling as healthy as you should be, at any moment the phone could summon you to the shop where what you thought was basic maintenance is now a major auto repair, or you just had a publishing industry gatekeeper reject your last work with one of those blandly cordial notes that indicate to you that the person in whom you had put all your hopes didn’t bother to look at what you’ve sent.

You have to start.







The View

Orange paint like bad graffiti marks the thick trunk of tree that has grown for many years on public land outside my house. Soon the home-owners’-association landscapers will fill the day with the noise of saws and cut the tree down.

The tree commands the center of the view I have of our breakfast table. Its fading needles and graying bark mask some of the cars parked along the development’s main road. The large houses across the road seem farther away. I see other trees as I drink my morning coffee, but this one defines the space.

Though the tree was planted intentionally, only two acceptable explanations account for its role in shaping how I see the world each morning: its branching shape is either an act of God–evidence that, despite what I see on the front pages of the newspapers that are two big for the breakfast table, all is going according to divine plan–or that it is one more example of the unpredictable, indeterminable interaction of force and happenstance on a living thing that, by surviving, has attained a state of sublime beauty.

Thinking about such beauty saves me from the shrill voices and genuinely bad news I read and, for a few minutes before my wife leaves for work, see on television. Even the cheery network morning shows can’t help but report of ghastly weather, government venality, famous people misbehaving in public and the occasional academic study that tells us that eating this, or buying that will change everything, or help us avoid the danger of this, the risk of that, the inherent idea that we are little more than living things interacting with force and happenstance and have yet to achieve the steadfast dignity of the tree outside my window.

Are the brown needles (which are fewer than the green ones) and graying bark due to a painful, embarrassing, lifestyle-diminishing ailment that, like those mentioned in so many, many television commercials can be fought with a drug whose side effects–mentioned hurriedly we see people frolicking happily in places with views–may be worse than the cure? Or, as is the case with so many things we acquire, has it merely grown old and ugly in a place in which youth and beauty are a major selling point? I can only guess why the tree is marked for extinction.

The ancient Greeks explained beauty as a form of truth, a glimpse at proportion, balance, ratios of width to height. They discovered that ratios of three to two, are especially pleasing, and have an architectural function. The so-called “Golden Mean” of similar ratios was used in the construction of buildings. Renaissance landscape painters used the same ratios in arranging details in paintings that were so beautiful that they were used models by the first landscape architects, especially in Britain, where country house owners, fresh from the Grand Tour, would point to a painting of the Italian countryside with skinny trees and artfully positioned grottoes and clumps of ruined buildings, and insist that the sight of such a thing should greet them from their bedroom window.

How often what appears to be natural to us, is the opposite. You can see this in Japanese bonsai, where little plants are tortured meticulously until they resemble miniature trees. You also find it in attempts to preserve “view sheds,” that is, protect by law what people in a certain place may see at certain times. In addition to cutting down the tree (and, most likely, replacing it with a younger one), my home-owners’-association also enforces the appearance of every house in the development. Those Williamsburg, VA colors of beige, brown, gray and dark green are supposed to maintain the values of our property and the overall appeal of our homestead. What they really do is freeze the developer’s original vision, as if it were an historical event on par with the founding of our nation.

Go to George Washington’s Mount Vernon or Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and you’ll understand how two of our Founding Fathers were careful to plan how their great houses should be seen. Mount Vernon appears usually modest as you approach it. The interior rooms are small and the sleeping areas are unadorned. Then, you go out on to the back porch and feel like the king of the world as you take in a spectacular view of the Potomac River.

Monticello, like Hadrian’s Villa, is a temple to a man’s idea of himself, with numerous areas to look down on the landscape, with one special place for the telescope that Jefferson used to monitor the construction of the University of Virginia. This view has now been obscured by trees.

Both houses have underground passages that hide the movement of slaves. The places where slaves lived are also hidden from the views of the main houses, and it is to the credit of those who maintain these great landmarks that this fact is pointed out to visitors.

Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia home no longer exists. The place in which it stood is marked by a full-size steel outline. What has a densely crowded street on a bluff above Philadelphia’s harbor is now an open plaza. Whatever view Franklin may have had is unknown. What is known is that he was fascinated with nature, as a scientist, inventor, philosopher and politician.

The whole idea of “nature” as a mystical presence distinct from ourselves, but necessary for health and happiness, is a fantasy that we indulge in an effort not to think about death, decay, ignoble rot, incurable disease, terrible storms and the bad stuff that our newspapers tell us keeps happening and won’t go away.

Every morning, after making breakfast and feeding the dog, I sit with my wife and my eyes go from the newspaper, to the tree, and back. Having written for several newspapers, I can imagine the reporters and editors working so very hard on these few inches of text, believing with utmost certainty of the importance of providing me with information that is, by definition, “new.” They know they live in a world of short attention spans, so they must struggle to “hook” the reader with the headline, photo, and the who-what-when-how-where-why of the classic newspaper lede.

And yet, on just about every morning, my eyes grow tired of the anger, urgency, violence, injustice and violation that is so unnaturally new. I look, instead, on this view, and the old tree in its center, and the morning light streaming down on a scene that is also new. The sky, the tree, the parked cars behind it, the school buses and the kids who ride them, reveal changes subtle and dramatic.

I’ll miss that tree when its gone.




Eating the Blues

Can you eat your way out of depression? A recent article in the Wall Street Journal cites research that says…maybe. Here’s a link to the article:


The article suggests that gobbling the good old Mediterranean diet of fresh fruit, raw or minimally cooked vegetables, beans and legumes, olive oil, fish and lean sources of protein will not merely blow the blues away, but act as a corrective and make it less likely for depression to bring you down.

On the whole, I like the Med Diet when it was first flogged as a heart disease cure in the 1980s. Back then, a glass of wine was added to the daily repast as a sure-fire health enhancer, and, like most eager dieters, I found that what some people consider to be a glass of wine was not what I preferred. By the time I decided I had quaffed a merely adequate serving, I found myself in a sunny, if slightly soggy, mood that ended in a snooze.

That, and I discovered that cheap wines taste REALLY great with pizza and pasta (or is it the other way around?) and pizza and pasta are about as Med as you can get, even when you make sauces and use cheese with a lower-than-typical fat content. Low-fat sauces and cheeses not only have low-taste, but they make you eat more, bringing on that characteristically Mediterranean gut.

You can’t help but notice it when you visit any Med nation. The swanky Med types may look good on bicycles and scooters, or hiking up the Alps, but, after they reach an uncertain age, they develop the round faces, rounder guts and bigger bums and who didn’t appear to be any healthier than the we calorie-clogged Americans. And, though healthcare maybe theoretically “free” in some Med countries, American healthcare is much better in terms of delivery, technology, physician competence, wait times, outpatient therapies and access to prescription medicine. Last I checked, Med people had just as many problems with heart disease and diabetes as we did.

Add to that the fact that, in the late 1990s, the major study that identified dietary fat as the primary cause of arteriosclerosis was proved to have been based on spurious data. We now know that there is good fat (that shuts off our hunger when we feel “full”), not-so-good fat and really bad fat that contributes to arteriosclerosis, and that our bodies make that really bad fat all by themselves. Statins, which are supposed to interfere with really bad fat production, are now the world’s most common prescription drugs.

Our love of the Med diet coincided with two other major dining trends, the return of Big Meat (prime grade steak houses, fancy burgers) and the reinvention of comfort food: fatty, salty, cheesy, saucy, gooey, greasy, starchy intensely delicious meals that “feel good” going down, before they put you to sleep.

I have often wandered into places reeking of sizzling meet, and, after consuming a pile of artfully cooked protein, and the requisite spuds, I behold my mood…elevated. There really is something to comfort food that the Med diet does not deliver.

Finally, a few days after my wife and I viewed a documentary devoted to regional American pie shops, we found ourselves returning from a funeral and, in a fit of life-affirming consumerism, we enriched the local economy by purchasing a strawberry rhubarb pie, the first taste of which set off in my mouth a spectacular, sugary, butter-crust-crumbling fruit explosion also elevated my mood.

And, no, I did not experience the deflating let-down a few hours later. This pie delivered no mere “sugar high.”  Eating it was a peak experience, a life-affirming feat to counter the all thoughts of diets and deprivation which, far too often, amount to the same thing: you do this because you believe, against all lust and logic, that somehow it will be good for you.

With such memories I returned to the Wall Street Journal article and the study on which it was based. That foods influence our moods is obvious. That some kinds of influence may be better than others is worth exploring.

But, if given a choice between a lean, colorful, oil-and-vinegary Med salad (with slivers of grilled chicken on top), and strawberry rhubarb pie, I would not hesitate to send that study back to the kitchen.





Poem Number One

This is not the first poem you have seen

This is not the first poem I have written

It is more like a locomotive, the first acquired, silent in a shed, replaced by machines with bigger numbers.

When the big steam-puffing thing chugged into view, people thought

This is going to take us places!

What if it goes nowhere?

If we were supposed to have locomotives, we would have been given locomotives in the same way we’ve been given legs, feet, toes (but not shoes and socks) and the holes in our heads.

It smells funny, like the hot, rusty iron odor of blood.

If it breaks, who is going to fix it?

This is going to make us a big pile of money!

This is going to do what others never did!

This is the first of many!

Remember how it sounded when it moved?

Number ONE, number ONE, number ONE!












Those Who Teach

With the ending of the statewide teachers’ strike in West Virginia (for a five percent raise on a salary that is still among the lowest in the nation), I see again how many people in this country hate teachers.

I admit to some prejudice against the haters. I have had about five (or six) great teachers in my life. All were charismatic, electrifying lecturers and, most important of all, did not compel me to ingest the required curriculum as much as they showed me how what was being taught was valuable, necessary and important to me personally. The message I got from all is that having the time and places to let yourself be educated is a great gift that begins when that lightbulb of understanding goes off in your head, and does not end, especially when you find yourself as old (or older) than your teachers, and you think back on what they did and who they appeared to be, and you marvel at how the wisdom they were passing on.

This said, I can understand why teachers are a target of so much characteristically American animosity. Though the United States may be among the most educated societies in the world, and have colleges so prestigious that foreign students struggle for admission, most Americans believe that life’s greatest lessons are not taught in a classroom, but in the “real world.” We tend to have more respect for “self-made” individuals who began their social climb somewhere behind the starting line, than those who went to school, hit the books, collected credentials and became successful doing as they were taught–even if the majority of self made individuals in this country did precisely that.

We also revere those who exceptions who quit, do badly in school, or are misjudged by their teachers. Among the most famous are Albert Einstein, whose childhood teachers complained that he lacked focus and would most likely fail in later life, Henry Ford, who left school at 15 and became only fascinated with engineering when his father gave him a pocket watch that Ford took apart and reassembled, and Steve Jobs, the consumer products visionary whose dropped out of Stanford but was permitted to sit in on a calligraphy class, which, he later claimed, helped him realize the theory of design that had made some (though far from all) of his Apple technology products so successful.

Add to this a quasi-religious ideal, expressed in fusty mysticism by Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, that anything you really need to know you can learn by living in, and observing “Nature,” a homegrown American turn on the Protestant ideal that God speaks to us all, if we would only draw ourselves away from distraction and temptation and listen.

I confess I shared some of the haters’ skepticism about the efficacy of teaching the arts in a classroom. I became a writer by writing, because my heroes were writers and I wanted to be like them. As an adolescent, I had the chutzpah to call up some writers on the telephone. Others I met at science fiction conventions. I visited one who lived a few bus rides away and, as I have written elsewhere in this blog, apprenticed myself to another.

Every writer I met told me the same thing: you learn by reading and writing and sending your stuff out to editors who will reject it repeatedly until they accept it. This remains true, though nobody tells you how awful rejection can be; that publications will try to cheat you out of what little money they pay you; the days, weeks and months when you don’t know how you’re going to pay the bills; how much your stuff is change when it finally sees print; and the peculiar envy and condescension that management–editors, publishers, the people who make money from what you do–has for those who make the stuff they need to sell.

I took only one writing course in college and, based on a single short story, I passed it in the first week. Though I always considered writing to be my calling, I began teaching because I liked to share the experiences I acquired as a self-taught writer who wallowed in the real world. I believed (erroneously) that the tender shoots that bloomed in sheltered academic writing courses were not as hearty as what sprouted from “real world” soil.

Alas, it’s all writing, and what matters, in the long run and the short, is if what is on the page speaks to you, and to what degree you are guided by your ability to listen. But I was a young kid starting out on a journey as a teacher, and, like most who begin an adventure, I had every reason to believe my expectations would be met.

That’s when I ran into a quote from the witty Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

Though most in current English literature classes, and a few more who have graduated, don’t know who Shaw was, I most certainly did. I read many of Shaw’s plays in high school because they were funny and, more important, because they took accepted notions of what was morally right and proper and turned them upside down. In the relentlessly chatty world of Shaw’s plays, you could be delighted and annoyed at the same time.

And everyone knew, when I was a child, that Lerner & Lowe’s My Fair Lady, a staple of musical theater whose Broadway cast recording I had listened to on my parent’s record player, was based on Shaw’s Pygmalion, which, everyone also knew, was based on an earlier Greek legend.

In Stephen Sondheim’s The Frogs, an attempt to transform Aristophanes’ Fifth Century B.C.E. Greek comedy into a late-20th Century musical (it was originally presented in a swimming pool at Yale), the god Dionysus (played by Nathan Lane in the 2004 Broadway revival) is disgusted with the quality of contemporary dramatic material and travels to the underworld with the intention of bringing back a playwright who write better.  Dionysus has a tough choice: Shaw or Shakespeare? Shakespeare wins.

Shaw hated going to school in Dublin. He eventually left to work as a journalist–which he learned by doing–in London, becoming one of the city’s most popular theater critics. Even before his plays became successful, he was notorious as a socialist, contrarian and wit. He was extraordinarily prolific and lived on to be a charming, if peculiar and contradictory elder statesman among the Irish.

Shaw’s quip about teachers troubled me not just because the playwright did not teach. When you’re doing anything in the arts, you have moments when you feel you’re not producing enough, not working hard enough, not doing all that you wish you could do in order to achieve the fantasies you had when you started your journey.

And, as anyone who has tried to show anyone how to do something knows, there are times when teaching seems like a complete waste of time: you’ve repeated yourself so many times, and still, the student doesn’t understand.

Finally, Shaw speaks to the rarefied snobbery that professionals use to put themselves above the dilettantes.  True creativity–the kind that produces great art that changes the world or makes people spend money–cannot be taught. You either have it, or you don’t, and those that don’t should admit it and do something else.

You see this snobbery in editors and publishers who, when you put them in a place where they feel they can’t be overheard, talk about the awful stuff they rejected. How could anyone imagine that such dreck was worth writing?

In the science fiction field, the snobbery has been immortalized by late writer Theodore Sturgeon lives on as the founder of Sturgeon’s Law, who, in responding to critics who said “Ninety percent of science fiction is crud,” agreed, but added “ninety percent of everything is crud.”

Was I among the cruds because I hadn’t sold a science fiction short story? Was I a crud because a literary novel on which I had worked diligently for two years was rejected by a publisher of thrillers? When you’re self-taught, you know that learning anything worth doing can be difficult. You also know that talent may open the door a crack, but what keeps you in the game is persistence and dedication.

And just about anybody can be persistent and dedicated. In truth, most published writing is filled with those who produced and produced and produced until they became successful enough to produce less frequently.

So I came up with a line that appealed to those who asked me to do more teaching. I refuted Shaw.

Those who can, should. Those who can teach, must.

Because teaching is also an art, and we all have experienced teachers who were not good at the art. A teaching administrator proclaimed to me that the reason so many people hate teachers is that these people have had bad experiences in classrooms. The haters also believe that teaching is something that anyone can do. “So,” this administrator paused, having no doubt said this same thing to far too many people, “if anyone can build a house, do you want just anyone to build yours?”

Do we hear some of the same snobbery in this remark?

I later tangled with this administrator, who wanted me to teach his way, or not at all. He is one of the reasons I don’t teach any other way but my own.

The people I have taught have published. They have written stuff that they and other people enjoy. Some of them have gone on to teach.

We go where we’re needed, whether or not we understand that when we arrive.







Democracy in Action

When I began to hang out in newsrooms, I quickly learned that every journalist hated covering the town meetings, in which school boards, zoning commissions, city councils and county boards of ‘dis-‘n’-dat sat stone-faced on an elevated platform as the rough-and-tumble-dried stood and spoke, one at a time, about the issues that concerned them.

Because I mostly wrote features instead of hard news, I was never assigned a town meeting. But I knew those who did. They left the newsroom bright and cheery as the sun set. They came back at 10 p.m. dull-eyed and slack-faced, clutching a cup of take-out coffee, knowing that even if they captured accurately everything that was said, spelled every the name correctly, and got it all in before the 11 p.m. deadline, their work would be chopped down until it was barely two paragraphs, and then, most likely, get cut further, or not even appear in the the next day’s local news section because a last-minute advertisement took up the space.

What would happen to their reporting? Was it cached somewhere, just in case someone who spoke at the meeting went berserk and shot up a neighbor’s above-ground swimming pool? Would the unpublished article be referenced if one of the officials on the board ran for a position in state politics and won?

What everybody knew, but really didn’t care about, was that these meetings were a crucial part of small town American life, even if what happened at them was as far from the sentimental scenes on Norman Rockwell magazine illustrations as the front page news they aspired to report.

Here you saw the newly elected struggle to keep their composure as they were reviled by those who did not vote for them. Here you heard the rage and frustration of citizens who really did have something better to do than wait their turn to complain about the way a law was enforced, grumble about the neighbor’s above-ground swimming pool–erected in obvious violation of zoning regulations– leaking chlorinated water into their vegetable garden or assail the hypocrisy inherent in the proposed budget. Here you watched a person look back nervously over his shoulder to see if any those who had promised to show up and lend moral support, actually showed up to watch him speak for them. Here you heard a self-proclaimed payer of taxes “taxpayer” talk about truth, justice and the American way, relate it to an issue that had absolutely nothing to do truth, justice and the American way, and then walk out because he was not in the least interested in hearing from anyone else.

When what I believed would be a temporary flirtation with journalism became a series of difficult marriages, I came to know some outstanding political reporters. From them I learned of a different side of the profession, where these meetings were a way to learn how American democracy actually worked.

Go to enough meetings, I was told, and you begin to recognize who really has the power. Go to a few more and you can connect the dots that link the powerful with the influential, the people with money to the people who protect or tax that money. Finally, you understand what is called constituent services, how those in power further the survival and good fortune of themselves by taking care of those who support them.

Forget about what you learned in high school civics about the “checks and balances” created by the authors of the US Constitution. In local politics, the checks are what staffers cash to get “street money” to pay for votes, suppress dissent and make things happen whose cost can’t appear in public records. The balances are fictions–claims made in speeches and proclamations–that, no matter how often reporters prove them false, are intended to help us believe that ours remains the best of all worlds.

And the greatest fiction of all is the belief that democracy is about “the people” being in charge. This wasn’t true in Athens, where the custom of permitting male property-owners sitting on a hillside the privilege to say Yea or Nay over how money from silver mines may be spent (the Athenians chose to build warships with which they created a small empire that lasted for a few generations until they lost a war against the Spartans, who were ruled by a pair of kings, who made sure that Athens would be a tyranny until it was conquered by the Romans) created the idea of rule by the people.

But we want to believe it was. And the great thing about attending a public meeting, as I did recently, is that as long as this belief can be indulged, people who really don’t have any power can feel that they have some control over their destiny.

It can be a beautiful, and ugly, thing to see. It’s beautiful when people stand up and say things that tug at your heart. Let’s do more to help the unfortunate! Let’s give a raise to the people who do the most good! Let’s have a parade or a proclamation to show how much we want to honor those who work so hard for us!

It’s ugly when someone vents anger at the powerful, no matter how much the powerful may deserve it, or spews a dark cloud of discontent about taxes, zoning or the neighbor’s barking dog. Because the anger reminds everyone that politics has limits, the most important being that it isn’t a source of permanent personal happiness. Local government does not exist to please us. Rather, it makes things possible that would not be possible any other way.

We may not like the result. We may grumble at the placement of a traffic light where we previously zoomed on by. We may wonder why the people we elected to not raise taxes have raised them again this year. We may discover that the commonest of common sense cannot explain how any of our tax money has been spent. We may notice, if any of us stand up and make a little speech, that some of the powerful are looking at their watches, or their cell phones, or their tablets, or they’re passing notes to teach other, because they just can’t endure another person telling them what they should be doing.

We may tell ourselves that if things were just a little bit different, we would run for public office, win and make everything right!

What these politic reporters told me was that few people in politics ever agree on what is right. We hope that people of good moral character are elected, and that these people surround themselves with vestments cut from the same cloth. But the purpose of an election is not to deliver the best person for the job. It’s to create a path to power that is clear enough and seemingly fair enough so that we don’t have civil wars every six months.

At best we who are not powerful may be able to empower those who seem to share our values. At worst we can count the days until we cast our vote for the next person.

But we get a chance to stand up and say something. I urge you to try it. I did, a long time ago.

And it really made all the difference.